The first two 500 Miles to Memphis releases I reviewed reveled in their country-punk genre elements. Fiddle, pedal steel, and frantic tempos all clashed and meshed and bashed and had a party. In Stand There and Bleed, the band has matured into itself, making fewer overt gestures to the genres they’re inhabiting or bending. This results in expert songwriting that is both incredibly situated and widely diverse.
First things first: frontman and songwriter Ryan Malott has expanded his lyrical repertoire. Sure, there are still a number of collapsed-or-collapsing relationship tunes on this record (including one simply titled “Alone”), but “Medication” is a touring song, “You’ll Get Around” is a song of advice to a sister, and “Takes Some Time” is – get this – almost a love song. If there’s change, it starts at the root, and the root of 500 Miles to Memphis is its lyrics.
From there, the sound has gotten more comfortable in places and expanded in others. “Medication” still falls squarely in the country-punk genre, with supercharged tempos, galloping drums, and wild lead guitar meeting for an excellent take on the country-punk genre. “How Would I Know” is one of the most torrential salvos of punk anger and energy I’ve heard 500MTM release–there are references to the chugga-chugga of hardcore punk in the bridge. It all sounds supremely assured: nothing is out of place in these tunes, but nothing sounds overpolished either.
The polish is saved for a later collection of tunes. In the same way that Blink-182 tempered some of their snottiness for the power-pop gems of their self-titled record, Malott has channeled his pop inclinations into a trio of tunes: “Bethel, OH,” “Easy Come & Easy Go,” and “Takes Some Time.” “Bethel, OH” is a gleeful rumination on the follies and foibles of youth steered by an effervescent, memorable chorus. The ’80s guitar-pop vibes of “Easy Come & Easy Go” make me think of Cheap Trick at its finest, while the staccato opening riff of “Takes Some Time” pleasantly shocked me in its relationship to those of classic rock mainstays Styx. (As a person who has purposefully attended a latter-day Styx concert, this is a positive reference, I swear.) The band rocks along perfectly in each of these tunes, not sounding out of their element in the least.
That’s not even the most compelling switcheroo the listener is privy to on the record: the last quarter of the record consists of three straight-up country tunes. “You’ll Get Around” is touching in its earnest pleas for a sister to make something of her life, sold beautifully by Malott’s excellent vocal performance and the band’s striking ease at back-porch banjo-pickin’. “Easy Way Out” is more ominous in tone, but it’s perhaps even more impressive in its arrangment. But the piece de resistance of their roots revival is the six-minute “Alone,” which starts off as a swooning lullaby before building to a pounding, towering, full-band crescendo full of frantic drums, searing organ, and overall band theatrics. If it’s not the closer of the live show, it totally should be. It doesn’t beat the 9-minute “Everybody Needs an Enemy” off We’ve Built Up to NOTHING in scope, but it trounces it in terms of impression.
Stand There and Bleed is, to me, an unlikely title for this record–especially considering that there is no title track. The lyrics do have more sturdiness to them, more recognition of the realities of pain and more appreciation for the joys of life. But the music covers so much ground that there is no time to stand still as a band or a listener. Stand There may not be the release that’s heaviest on the country-punk genre markers, but as a musical effort, it’s an impressive, diverse, striking record. Highly recommended.
500 Miles to Memphis‘ last album Sunshine in a Shot Glass was a wild country-punk album dedicated to what seemed to be the nastiest break-up ever. Lead singer Ryan Malott, in his attempts to improve in all aspects upon the last album, went out and had another friggin’ breakup (or, God forbid, it’s the same breakup still happening) that seems even more brutal than the last. Thus, we have We’ve Built Up to NOTHING, which is one of the only titles I’ve ever seen that manages to yell.
I feel straight-up awful for Ryan Malott if these tunes are all autobiographical, but I’m thankful that he’s so good at getting his angst down on tape. If the first one was a great break-up album, this is an epic breakup album. Where Sunshine in a Shot Glass reveled in the country/punk dichotomy, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING sees it as a fact of life and gets on with writing great songs. This allows the band to expand its sound out in great ways, like the Avett Brothers-esque piano-country-punk of “Let it Go,” instrumental interludes “…” and “dejas,” the nine-minute-long kiss-off “Everybody Needs an Enemy,” and the 3-minutes-exactly adrenaline blast that is “Shots.” There are marching bands, strings, organs, pianos, banjos, and more. The title track closes out the album with a tuba-led strings and brass orchestra, and Malott pulls off the guitar-less song with such slick expertise you’d think he’s been doing it forever.
Some parts he has been doing forever. There are two-steppin’ country-punk songs like the frantic “It’s Alright” and “East Texas Angel” that have nothing distinctive in them but Malott’s trademark vocals, solid melodies, and a punk strum. And that’s enough to turn out a great song all on its own. But it’s experiments like the relatively mellow, heart-rending “You Loved Me Once” and the organ-soaked romance of “Moonlight” have little to do with punk and more to do with emotion-tugging country and pop which make this album so infectious.
This isn’t just a rage-tastic break-up middle finger in musical form. This is a thoughtful evaluation of all the emotions that come along with a breakup, as filtered through Ryan Malott’s singer/songwriter idiom. As a result, the tempos, styles and sounds of the album are incredibly varied. I mean, “Moonlight” could be on country radio right now and no one would know that 500 Miles to Memphis is mostly a punk band. And that’s awesome.
If you’ve gotten your heart broken, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING is a therapy session and a half. If you like country-punk, these guys are the reigning kings. If you like adrenaline-fueled punk albums, you’ll still like this album. And, amazingly, if you like hot country, you’ll find treats for your ears here. 500 Miles to Memphis has pushed their sound out to new areas and conquered them thoroughly. An amazing release.
I’m a very discriminating listener of pop-punk. I’m also not a huge fan of country music. Despite these two major hurdles, 500 Miles to Memphis has won my heart with their country-punk amalgam.
There’s no easier place to start in explaining their sound than “Don’t Mislead,” which marries the galloping snare beat native to old-school punk with the plodding up-down bass lines of old-school country. It’s a nearly perfect split between punk and country throughout the song, with a dark country feel to the verses and a pop-punk chord mashing for the chorus. Ryan Malott’s alternately sneering and earnest vocals are the thread that ties the song (and all of 500 Miles to Memphis’ sound) together.
The lyrical themes of the album read like a traditional album – songs about friends, hometowns, lost love, whiskey, going nowhere, wanting to get out, even God. But instead of being depressing, these familiar country themes are charged with a punk attitude of guarded optimism – life may suck, but we’ll still wake up tomorrow to do this again.
Aside from being a fascinating study in ethnomusicology, Sunshine in a Shot Glass is awesome. The music is varied, from straight-ahead chargers (“Fireflies”, “Darlin”), to hoedowns (“All My Friends are Crazy”), to weepers (“Cheers”, “Keep it Together”), to just rock songs (“Broken, Busted, Bloody”). Each song boasts a melody that is hummable and dangerously hooky, whether it be from the vocals, the fiddle, the guitar or the bass. The band works together absolutely perfectly on these songs – never covering up the most important parts, they concede individual glory for the good of the group. With so many things going on in each song, that’s an important thing to learn.
To be honest, I’m not the type of guy who would search out a country-punk band. But Sunshine in a Shot Glass is easily one of my favorite releases of the year. I’ve been humming standout track “The Regret” for about a week solid, and I haven’t even put it in my car yet (that’s where albums become immortalized for me). I honestly can’t think of anything wrong with this album – it’s perfectly paced, superbly written and performed, honest, passionate and fun. Heck, the album art actually enhances the listening experience – and that’s rare. You need this album if you like country or punk – if you don’t like one of the two, even better. I’m convinced that you will love this album anyway.
1. “Ich Cetera” – Austin Stahl. There’s not as much instrumental indie-rock in the world as I would like. This entry in the genre is a road-tripping song, a friendly and adventurous little tune underpinned by a stable drumline and guitar strum pattern. The Nick Drake-esque piano line is lovely as well.
2. “Retro Kid” – Retro Kid. “It comes into my head / the need to dance” is the refrain on this sleek, low-slung electro-pop gem. If all electro-dance were as slinky and winding, I might be out at the club more often. (And by the club, I mean “me in my living room, playing electro-pop at full blast”.)
3. “Stuck Between” – Klara Zubonja. An almost overwhelmingly twee introduction opens into an exuberant indie-pop track that’s a cross between the sass of Lily Allen, the coy subtlety of Regina Spektor, and the punchy arrangements of Ingrid Michaelson.
4. “Be Here Now” – Annabelle’s Curse. Genre-busting indie outfit Annabelle’s Curse returns with a song that, well, busts genres. There’s some alt-country, some indie-pop, some grungy indie-rock, and more crammed into this flowing, atypical song structure. Viva la invention.
5. “Pocketknife” – The Anchor Collective. The vocal melodies are front and center in this indie rock track, as not even a crunchy guitar section can take my ear away from the comforting, comfortable melodies that play out over the mostly-dreamy arrangement.
6. “Beth” – Paul Whitacre. Every now and then a song comes along that jumps out of the pack and says, “Listen to me!” This folk-pop tune with country guitar leads is a breath of fresh air in a crowded field, from the lovely melodies to the deft arrangement to the carefully organized lyrics to the immaculate production job. This is top-shelf work, people. Jump on it.
7. “Memorial Day” – Palm Ghosts. Dawes-esque Americana meets REM-style ’90s guitar-rock jangle in the sonic equivalent of a well-worn, trusty jacket. You may not have heard this song before, but it will feel familiar and great as soon as you do.
8. “Rosanna” – Mike Llerena. This song has punk rock vocal tone and melodies, doo-wop rhythms, and alt-country guitar tone. All three of those genres have heart-on-sleeve tendencies, and they’re on full display here in this “sad, spurned lover” lyric set. If you’re into 500 Miles to Memphis, you’ll be all up on this.
9. “Savior’s Hand” – Colin Onderdonk. Powerful vocals and a spartan arrangement consisting almost entirely of rumbling toms and wiry string bass creates a sonic environment that mirrors the lyrics that describe a weary traveler in an ominous, dangerous land.
10. “The Conversation of the Street Lights Will Pass as Quickly as Our Words” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This stuttering, wide-eyed, major-key post rock tune includes burbling guitars, soaring bass work, evocative (and high quality) found sound / spoken word clips, and a delightful sense of motion through the whole piece. Fans of The Album Leaf, Delicate Steve, Adebisi Shank, and other major-key post-rock will find much to love in this.
11. “The Naked Mind” – Ryan Svendsen. I’ve never heard a piece composed entirely of looped, layered trumpet lines and percussion. The trumpet is naturally an instrument prone to brash melodies, long melodic runs, and alternation between mellow and sharp tones, and all of that is on display here. There’s a hypnotic groove to the piece through the repetition of the theme that is only increased by the eruption of the percussion partway through. Adventurous listeners: rejoice!
12. “Himalaya” – Klangriket. By including lots of atmospheric, foley-type sounds, this song becomes both a minimalist soundtrack and the movie it is scoring. It’s a distinct, unique, very adventurous sonic experience that blends classical, post-rock, found sound, and soundtracks together.
Deep Elm Records, whose mail I have been getting since Independent Clauses first started in 2003, has done something entirely unprecedented with its 200+ releases: made them all pay-what-you-want. All of them. This is simply mind-boggling. 200 releases spanning almost 20 years? It’s a treasure trove of everything from raging hardcore to emo to post-rock to post-punk to dance-rock to garage-rock to indie-pop to folk-pop. If it has a guitar in it, Deep Elm has probably put it out. In honor of their 200th, as well as their generosity, here’s a list of my Top Ten Favorite Deep Elm Releases.
10. So Close to Life – Moonlit Sailor. “Hope” is one of my favorite songs of all time, although not my favorite Deep Elm song (that one comes later). A great post-rock album.
9. This is Indie Rock, Vol. 2. The second compilation that I deeply loved from Deep Elm, and they do have a ton of them to keep up with. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about Deep Elm–they go all out for their artists, and that makes them one of the best in the business.
8. Sunshine in a Shot Glass – 500 Miles to Memphis. This album literally does everything I want a country-punk album to do. It could be a blueprint.
7. Why Aren’t I Home? – Athletics. I used to run to this album at a really low point in my life. The dramatic tensions between beautiful and crushing, artsy and muscly, longing and being… This was a wonderful soundtrack to those days.
6. We’ve Been Here Forever – Merkabah. Churning, roiling emo-rock: a blast from their early ’00s past displaced into the early ’10s. This album will have your fists in the air and your throat hoarse.
4. Nuet – Dorena. Deep Elm has gone on a serious post-rock bender as of late. Although Lights and Motion is deservedly soaking up tons of press, Dorena’s latest album just blows my mind.
3. There Should Be More Dancing – Free Diamonds. Way on the other end of the spectrum, this spazzy dance-rock masterpiece has some of the most impressively frantic (yet hooky!) bass lines I have ever heard.
2. Mare Vitalis – The Appleseed Cast. Not entirely because it contains the literally perfect song “Fishing the Sky,” but seriously. An art-rock epic capped off by what is, for my money, the best song Deep Elm has released.
1. Deep Elm: Too Young to Die – Various. The one that started it all for me; I’ve listened to this comp backwards and forwards more times than I can remember. Absolute gold.
I had a strange life of music in the early 2000s; my listening habits tied together the fringes of the pop-punk, emo, pop-rock and acoustic scenes. Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good covers the general sound, but I listened to stuff that never made it to the radar. So my nostalgia is not for any particular band, but a sound, and City Reign has churning, yearning, melodic yelp of a sound.
Because I was (and still am) obsessed with Appleseed Cast’s “Fishing the Sky,” Deep Elm Records was a staple of my listening in the early 2000s. They’re offering their whole catalog of releases for $5 each for the rest of the year. Top picks: Too Young to Die sampler, There Should Be More Dancing by Free Diamonds, Mare Vitalis by Appleseed Cast, We’ve Built Up to NOTHING by 500 Miles to Memphis. But there are literally dozens of gems in their catalog, so you should just go nuts.
Autumn Owls’ video for “Byways of the Lifeless” caused me to realize that by the mid-2000s, most videos stopped having their credits in the bottom left corner at the beginning. The fact that this one does was a blast from the past in the best way. Also, the hectic sense of motion is reminiscent of early 2000s videos.
If all rock sounded more like Shaky DeVille and less like Nickelback, I’d listen to a lot more rock’n’roll. Shaky DeVille sounds like the lovechild of rock’s Clutch, country-punk’s 500 Miles to Memphis, Irish punk’s Dropkick Murphys and Bullets and Octane’s roaring, attitude-filled vocals. Let’s take a moment and think about that sentence. How could this band not be awesome?
You only have to listen to the first thirty seconds of “Come Out Ye Black and Tan” to know everything you need to know about Shaky DeVille. A distorted riff starts out the song, then transforms into crunchy, ear-pleasing guitar mashing. The galloping drums frantically press the sound forward, while the classic country bass line pulls the sound back. It makes Shakey DeVille sound completely awesome and somewhat like the world’s loudest, rawest country band.
“Prayers” has a similar country-esque effect, while the delightfully manic “Let’s Roll” jacks up the tempo even more. “You Had It Good” introduces some old-school metal influence. Title track “Hot Asphalt” sounds like an Irish punk song without the kitsch.
By the time straight-up country-punk tune “Red Sultan” closed out the disc, I’d been completely converted. If you like the idea of rockabilly or country-punk, but think that all the current incarnations are a bit wimpy, Shakey DeVille’s amalgam will take you home. Hot Asphalt is a rock record of which to be proud. Cheers, Shakey DeVille. Have you heard of 500 Miles to Memphis? I think you guys would get along.
1. Sever Your Roots — The Felix Culpa. Hands down the best album of the year; nothing else even came close to approaching its masterful take on post-hardcore. The brilliant lyrics pushed it over the top.
So, I took a week off from Independent Clauses. I was having a monster of a week, so I just mailed it in for a couple days. Compared to the eight-month hiatus that one time, this was nothin’.
But, it nicely coincided with the end of the quarter, so I thought I’d put a little list up of my top releases from the first three months (since I listened to more music in this quarter than I think I have at any other time in Independent Clauses’ existence). It’s been an awesome year for music so far, and I’m stoked that there are three more quarters yet.
1. Sever Your Roots – The Felix Culpa. This post-hardcore masterpiece has not yet ceased to amaze me. Every song reveals new gems with each listen, whether it be a buried guitar line, a line of lyrics I hadn’t yet caught, or something else. “Escape to the Mountain” is one of my favorite tracks of the year.
2. Hours From It – Holy Fiction. Jumped up my list in the last week or so, as “More than Ever,” “Song 10” and “Two Small Bodies” inserted themselves in my life and would not let go. Passionate, melodic, lush indie-rock that doesn’t brook any cliches, resulting in occasionally challenging listening. But it’s worth it to hear the vocalist holler out “I neeeeeed you moooore than everrrr…”
3. Mt. Chimaera – Brasstronaut. Any band that’s got the guts to eschew choruses for an entire album, send down trumpet solos like it’s nobody’s business, and write the equivalent of an indie-rock symphony deserves all the props they can get. The fact that clarinet-led klezmer also happens in there makes it jump my list.
4. Of the Blue Color of the Sky – OK GO. I heard that their new video has several million hits and their album has sold just over 25,000 copies. This is a freakin’ shame. It’s their best work yet, mature in ways that “Here it Goes Again”-era OK GO can’t understand, much less imitate. If you pardon the horrible autotune experiment, the whole thing is solid, with “Needing/Getting” being the fist-pumping, shout-it-out anthem.
5. We’ve Built Up to NOTHING – 500 Miles to Memphis. This is country-punk at its finest, displaying both its country and punk roots, while extending out into places I’d never thought they’d go (full orchestras? really?). Standout track “Everybody Needs an Enemy” is outlandishly good in its nearly-ten-minutes-long-ness.
I like country music, and I’m glad that the number of indie-rockers in country bands (which, really, is what an alt-country band is) is growing. In addition to the obligatories (Wilco, Jayhawks, Old 97s; you can’t really say the phrase alt-country without mentioning them), the late Drag the River (and the rest of Suburban Home Records’ artists), Clem Snide, 500 Miles to Memphis, and now Any Day Parade have crossed my path and made it okay for me to say “I like country music.”
Yes, Any Day Parade is undeniably country. They have the walking bass, the distinctly country guitar tone, and the shuffling drums. There’s harmonies galore: males harmonizing male leads, females harmonizing male leads, males harmonizing female leads, and duets where both are equally important. In fact, if this weren’t all delivered with sneer, grit and adrenaline, this album would be a straight-up country record.
But the sneer, grit and adrenaline take what could be a flat country palate and transform it. It’s not even a heavy edge of adrenaline (not like 500 Miles to Memphis’ liberal application of the double pedal), sneer (Clem Snide has them way beat), or grit (there’s plenty of bands that have them covered on the gritty front), but their combination is just the right mix. It’s the desperation in the female lead’s voice in “Where We Fall” and “Water Bucket”; it’s the ominous overtones to “Water Bucket.” It’s the almost-too-honest lyrics of “A Couple Hours.” It’s all these little moments and parts that take Any Day Parade from just your average country band to one that you want to blast with your windows down on a lonely highway.
So, it’s hard to explain exactly why Where We Fall EP is so good. It just is. There’s nothing innovative here; they’re just great songwriters and passionate performers. This is good music, without any gimmicks. It’s worth your time, if you’re the least bit interested in country (or expanding your musical tastes).
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.