1. “Dylan Thomas / Bitter Bitter” – The Duke of Norfolk. A Dylan Thomas spoken word clip opens the gates of this track onto a field of wavering strings, distant vocals, gentle percussion, sea waves, and beautiful guitar melodies. It’s a very hopeful scene that gets only more so with the addition of subtle arpeggiator bleeps and a ramped-up tempo. The hope and warm enthusiasm of the track contrast with the lyrics, which are about coming to grips with death of loved one. It’s a statement track, for certain, and it’s a great stake to stick in the ground. Highly recommended. (Full Disclosure: I gave feedback on a pre-mastered version of this track.)
2. “Heat” – Kira May. Well, this is something new and different. There’s some ambient vibes to start the track; a lot of thick, manipulated vocals (think Imogen Heap); engaging “lead bass” work; and a strong, direct vocal performance on top of all of that via May. All of that runs slinky pop vibes (a la Dido) through an art-school filter (a la Talking Heads) to turn up something exciting and unusual. Highly Recommended.
3. “From Osaka, With Love” – Mixtaped Monk. This totally chill instrumental track manages to create the relaxing, soothing vibes of ambient music without losing the sense of forward motion. Gentle electric guitar, intriguing melodic percussion noises, and the oh-so-rare effective use of a slow sweeping/phasing effect on the synths. The addition of full kit percussion adds some post-rock panache, which gives the track heft.
4. “Walkin’ Through” – Emilie Mover. This hushed, intimate folk tune doesn’t walk so much as leisurely float. Mover’s beautiful voice unspools careful melodies over a gently pulsing fingerpicking pattern on a nylon-string guitar. There are crickets in the background, suggesting that Mover is out in a forest near a pond, perhaps, living the romantic life of nature. All in all, a lovely track.
5. “Fake Out” – MUNROE. This is a piano ballad, but it’s not maudlin, campy, overextended, or overstuffed. It features a deeply affecting vocal performance, an insistent piano arrangement, and vocal melodies that are hard to get out of my head. If only all piano work could be this earnest, affecting, and strong.
6. “Shelter” – Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals. I was listening to John K. Samson’s excellent work yesterday. I found myself discussing with my wife that, despite 15 years of listening to new music almost every day, there are some artists that have the X factor (my wife called it “umami“) that can transcend a standard form in an almost indiscernable, indescribable way. Stephen Karl’s work has that umami quality–this is a folk/country tune with train-track percussion, weeping pedal steel, and a baritone vocal performance. Nothing of the piece jumps out as the thing that makes the track great, but every piece contributes to making this song a cut above the rest of the pack doing much the same type of work. Good job, Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals.
7. “Oh Honey” – Neighbor Lady. I can say, “Filters the best of ’50s pop vibes through chill ’90s low-key Britpop and contemporary indie-pop with a dash of punk rock attitude in the vocal performance” or I can say, “This is the sort of song that ends up on so many of your playlists and mix CDs that you start giving this song to people multiple times, unapologetically.”
8. “The Balance” – Tenderfoot. Put The Antlers, The National, and Alt-J in a blender and this smooth, assured indie track might just come out. The way all the elements (strings, vocals, drums, bass, guitars) come together into a single, slicked-back unit is impressive.
9. “The Future” – BAILEY. Here’s a chipper, major-key folk-pop tune that reminds me of Bronze Radio Return and the quieter moments of Magic Giant. The inclusion of keys and whistling is a lot of fun, adding to the good vibes coming from the base arrangement, vocal performance, and lyrics.
10. “Stay” – The Drew Thomson Foundation. This is ’90s-style alt-country (do we still say country-punk?) that has all the charge of a rock song with juuuuust enough country to keep it fresh. The punchy vocal performance and the yearning lyrics are icing on the songwriting cake.
11. “Got It Cheap” – Tom West. This tune makes genre distinctions meaningless: there’s a banjo, some sort of saxophone, horns, some crunchy electric guitar, walking speed tempos, and mournful (yet still catchy) vocals. It’s a pop song of some sort, maybe, but whatever it is, it sounds really “in the pocket.” One that’s worth repeating, for sure.
12. “Doughnuts Forever” – The Orb. Downtempo electronica with trip-hop influences, tropical vibes, and a total sense of cool running through the whole thing. Very polished from this veteran outfit.
Actionslacks has a long history- but I didn’t know that when I heard their album Full Upright Position. I just treasured it for what it was: a rockin power-pop trip that embraces life. It took this interview to enlighten me to the backdrop of Actionslacks- band members galore, band members spread out over the nation, and other complications that make the creation of such an album simply stunning. Read up on the amazing will-power of music- as well as a review of Full Upright Position here.
DOA: First off, I’d like to congratulate you on an excellent CD – I enjoy every song on the album.
Tim Scanlin: Thanks. I really liked your review, ‘cause like I told you, this record has polarized people. But that’s a good thing, in my opinion. I’d rather have two one star reviews and two five star reviews than 4 three star reviews. I don’t like people to be in the middle – I like extreme reactions. And that’s definitely been the case with this record.
DOA: So Full Upright Position is your fourth album as Actionslacks. How is this one different than the other three? Did you go in planning to record this one differently or anything?
Scanlin: This record was born out of my desire for us to be a lot more dynamic as a band. A lot of people called our last record emo, which we feel is a misnomer. We did a national tour in 2001 to support that record. We’d play these loud, almost punk rock shows every night, but we’d be sitting in the van during the day listening to the Verve or Goldfrapp or Wilco – stuff like that. There was this disconnect between what we played on stage and what we were actually listening to. At that point, I resolved that we were going to make an album that better reflected our current tastes in music. I wanted to explore the gray areas of volume and tempo. I think we did that. I think [Full Upright Position”> has got a lot more nuance; definitely a lot more nuance than the live shows on our last tour. Our live show now much more closely resembles our records, which we’re really happy about. But there’s been some backlash to all of this. It’s to be expected.
DOA: Seems like you predicted that backlash on “We Are Not the Losers”.
Scanlin: Yeah, pretty much. I wrote that song for our drummer, Marty. We’ve been playing together for 10 years and it’s really like a marriage at this point. In addition to being our secret weapon as a drummer, he’s also the voice of reason and the guy who talks me off the ledge quite often. I just wanted to acknowledge that. But the song is also about the backlash that I knew was coming. I just knew that there would be people who simply either wouldn’t get – or wouldn’t like – the direction that we were headed in. When we were writing the record in our practice space and recording it in the twenty-odd studios –
DOA: Really? Over 20 studios?
Scanlin: No it was actually eight, which is still seven too many. Anyway, sometimes while making the record we’d sit back and listen to a mix and I’d say, “You realize that some people are going to hate this, right?” But I didn’t care. You’re never going to please everyone. You’ve got to stake your claim, put yourself out there. The song is basically saying, “You’re never going to please everyone all the time – just please yourself and move on.” It’s kind of our version of “My Way.”
DOA: How did “All You’ll Ever Need to Know” come about?
Scanlin: I came up with the opening riff while sitting in the van outside Middle East in Boston. R.E.M. were the band that made me pick up a guitar in the first place, and I thought it’d be a fun exercise to write something that was an homage to their early records. As for the lyrics, I liked the idea of writing an open letter to my children, and future generations. When I was a kid, I used to record my grandpa telling stories, and I loved it. I don’t have any kids yet, but I just like the idea of being able to speak to them after I’m long gone. All of the lyrics reflect things that I’ve learned over the last 30 years – spending time with people you love, the idea of putting faith in yourself before you put it in some religion which may or may not save you at the end of the day. I always try to push myself, to keep moving forward. The line, “You’re much too young to be resigned,” – I think that can apply to anyone, whether they’re 13 or 80. Of all the songs on the album, that one probably means the most to me.
DOA: Why is the title “Full Upright Position”? Cause I scoured the album, and nowhere in any song is the lyric “full upright position”, unless I missed something.
Scanlin: It’s a nod to two things. One is that we spent a lot of time in airplanes while making the record. I flew back and forth from LA to San Francisco, [producer”> J. Robbins flew between Baltimore and SF, and we all flew out to DC at least once. It was insane. At one point, I felt like I was living at LAX. So the title is sort of a nod to all of that. But on a deeper level, it’s acknowledging that we wrote a pretty formal record, in terms of embracing archetypal classic rock – with a lower case “c” – structures. We’re all big fans of time-honored pop bands like the Who, Kinks, Cheap Trick, Oasis, etc. As a band, we totally embrace classic pop songwriting, and doing stuff like the modulation at the end of “Let It Slide.” Some people might look at that and think, “How boring,” but we see it as a tradition that we like to work within. Putting your own spin on that tradition is where it gets interesting, and I think we did that. Full Upright Position means, “It’s a formal process, and we’re not lying down on the job.”
DOA: “This Damn Nation” says it pretty clear, but what do you think about America these days?
Scanlin: The song pretty much speaks for itself. During the writing of the record, I lived in a little crappy apartment in Hollywood. I’d come home from work, fall on the couch, and start watching TV. But I only had four channels, so I was watching this awful network TV circa 2002. And it was fucking horrible. No nuance, no emotional complexity, just the dumbing down of every human emotion that exists. It’s frustrating because so many Americans are incapable of grasping the nuances and complexities of the world around them. We saw this in the recent election, where Bush largely won on the basis of hammering certain soundbites into peoples’ heads. And the mainstream media just feeds and cultivates that idiocy in people. The line “American popular culture is a contradiction in terms,” is saying that what passes for culture in this country isn’t really culture at all. Props to Green Day for writing “American Idiot,” but I was pretty annoyed the first time I heard it. They say the word “nation” like, 5 times in that song. Our song was released well before theirs. I wish people could hear ours, cause I think it’s better.
DOA: You think it’s better? How so?
Scanlin: No offense to those guys ‘cause I love them, but I think our version more clearly articulates what we’re both trying to say. I was really pissed when we tracked the vocal for that song – I think I did it in two takes. It’s probably my most passionate performance on the album. I still love to sing it ‘cause I stand behind every word. We’ve gotten some interesting responses, emails from people saying things like, “Thanks for venting my frustration.”
DOA: How long has Actionslacks been together?
Scanlin: Too long. [laughter”> Ten years this past August, which just blows me away.
DOA: Wow. How has the band stayed together over that time? Some bands seem like they lose a member a minute.
Scanlin: Oh, we’ve definitely had our share of that. We’ve had 4 bassists, 3 guitarists, a couple keyboard players. Our drummer Marty and I are the only original members at this point. Ross Murray , our bass player, has been in the band for about 4 years. Chuck Lindo, our other guitarist, has been around about that long, as well. Darice Bailey, our keyboard player, has been with us for about a year. How do we stay together? It’s tough. Marty lives in Maine, Ross is in the Bay Area and Chuck, Darice and I live in LA. But because we’re all so spread out, it makes it really fun when we do actually get together. Because we’re usually together only for short periods of time, it never gets stale like with a lot of bands. Before we have a chance to get bored or annoyed with each other, it’s over and we go our separate ways. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t like to see each and play together more often, ‘cause we totally would. Marty is going to be the first Actionslacks dad – his wife is having a baby in January. And he’s building a studio in his barn – I think we may record our next album there. We can just sit around on hay bales and rock out. It’ll sound like Neil Young’s Harvest or something. [laughter”>
DOA: There’s a lot more to Actionslacks than is noticeable…
Scanlin: Anyone who’s interested can check out our website at www.slacksaction.com. There’s a lot of info, photos, etc. there. It’s funny ‘cause the other day I was checking out our section on iTunes, and I was confronted with all of the songs we’ve written. And I thought, “Wow, maybe I’ve actually accomplished something over the last decade…” Speaking of songs, we’re considering putting out an album of B-sides, live cuts, covers, etc. – it’ll be out next year some time, if it happens. And I’m putting out a solo EP next spring, although I need to figure out what name it’ll be under. Anyone who’s curious can just watch the Slacks website for more info.
DOA: Who have you been listening to lately? I mean you can’t get out of an interview without talking music, basically ‘cause the interviewer’s nosy, not because he thinks he’s offering anything to the reader.
Scanlin: [Laughter”> Right. Man, there’s so much stuff. I’ve been really obsessing on Graig Markel. He’s a guy from Seattle who used to be in a great band called New Sweet Breath before he went solo. He’s doing a kind of Jeff Buckley meets Greg Dulli meets Prince-type thing. I think he’s brilliant. His new record is called Tall Tales On Tape. The most recent Elbow record, Cast of Thousands, just blows my mind. It’s probably my album of the year. The singer’s melodies just come out of nowhere and they kill me. I’m really into an LA band called The Few who have a new record coming out. Great pop stuff, kind of like the Replacements with a touch of British influence. I really like the Velvet Teen, as well. What else – Doves, Wilco, Everything But the Girl, New Order, The Fire Theft, an alt-country band called The Damnwells, and the usual suspects, like the Who, Neil Young, Johnny Cash. Y’know, the usual.
DOA: Thanks for the interview. Good luck with Actionslacks.
Scanlin: Nah, thank you.