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Author: Lisa Whealy

The Suitcase Junket delivers an eclectic powerhouse

Great songwriters weave a lyrical narrative, an intricate balancing act manifesting shared experiences through their art. Musical compositions defy conventions, with tempos dancing the waltz, tangoing as each pianissimo rises to a crescendo. Enter The Suitcase Junket’s The End is Now on Renew Records/BMG

An eclectic powerhouse that envelops the senses, The End is Now is more than the sixth album from songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Matt Lorenz, who has long performed as The Suitcase Junket. Changing up the familiar sonic palette for darker tones more fitting for the times, producer and keyboardist Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) joined Lorenz (Drums, Vocals) on a richly textured doom-folk release. I feel like the multifaceted album’s heady content has been riding the same hellish trainwreck of reality as I have for the past year.

Renew Records/BMG, representing roots Americana, sets the stage to focus on artists like Lorenz. That The End is Now is the label’s first release suggests this label values distinctive artistry. Unique artistry is indeed reflected in The End is Now. The album’s opening notes of “Prelude” slide into “Black Holes and Overdoses,” feverishly whirling through a descent into addiction. Gritty, frantic, and horrifying, the rolling beat sucks us in. Many of us have watched someone we care about slip into the clutches of addiction or alcoholism: it’s insanity. “Light a Candle” aches, each beat an emotive kind of funeral march. With every note’s perfect flow, a heaviness never fully takes hold, letting the tears settle too deep inside. Brilliantly, Lorenz soars here, creating a sacred shared space to grieve. This song seems like a spiritual release for us all. Truly, beauty rises out of pain in this song, like silent tears for–well, you name it, this year.

A master storyteller, Lorenz crafts “Then There Was Fire” with an essence of the DIY spirit he is known for. Spaciously mixed, each note has room for nuance, layering as the track evolves. Alive, moments flow like notes floating on the wind, undulating in a timeless dance. “Can’t Look Away” shines as one of my personal favorites, an acknowledgment made to this trainwreck year. In the midst of a catastrophe, this narrator’s weird perspective almost sounds fun? Bringing Berlin on board as a producer to craft a dark record, Lorenz achieved more than just that goal. Making the case for a new kind of cool, “When the Battle is Won” struts, uplifting with seemingly hopeful chord structures. “Jesus! King of the Dinosaurs” is an anthem, but remember that this is an album to be played from start to finish to fully unleash its magic.

“Breathe Forever” sets the stage for new ways we can face down our fears. Simple, right? How can defiant, upbeat, uptempo, maniacal truth-telling, down-to-earth talk calling out-neofascism and racism sound so joyful? Perfectly mixed, Berlin’s production choices go hand in hand with the joyful sound vibing to my soul. I’m grinning from the inside out, while each unfussy lyric slides into the finale gang vocals. This is ear candy at its sweetest! The End is Now is its own reality, yet aesthetically framed by the year 2020 and its chaos. “Last Man on the Moon” seismically shifts towards melancholy. Lorenz shines as a composer, lightly punctuating plaintive vocalization with choice instrumentation.

The songwriting here is excellently crafted. This record–shaped by geography, religion, economics, politics, and technology–shows signs of brilliance. Is “Rock Bottom” the town crier’s warning as we all slide towards the end of this hellish year? Maybe. Closer “More” brings flashes of the iconic Roger Waters track “Money” from Pink Floyd’s 1973 rock classic Dark Side of the Moon to electrify this cut, like sinew connecting each song together on this album. In the end, The Suitcase Junket’s The End is Now is a groundbreaking new album that could be 2020’s best. —Lisa Whealy

Andrew Adkins throws down in a throwback style

The Echoist throws down as a throwback rock classic from multi-instrumentalist Andrew Adkins. Adkins firmly embraces a sound that combines the essence of early Aerosmith blended with The Beatles. Recorded entirely in Adkins’ East Nashville home studio, The Echoist dishes up eight songs with a cohesive, sublime analog retro style.

Adkins, as producer, shapes the listener’s sonic experience. Adkins purposefully chose to record himself at home: though home studios seem the norm these days, the record’s home production happened prior to the age of COVID-19. Adkins manifested this magic with seasoned talent, as he called upon Tim Rogers (pedal steel), Zach Grouch (horns), and Phil Thompson (strings/piano). The results are a beautiful separation of instruments allowing every note to be heard, making the space between each note full of tension.

The deliciously stripped welcome of “Mostly Ouroboros” shines with psychedelic rock flair. It evokes Adkins’ past lives as a founding member of psychedelic, blues-infused, indie rock band Mellow Down Easy and gritty rockers Lions for Real (Werewolf Heart Records). The soul oozing from each beat of “Vagabond Shoes” shows these tracks were sequenced purposefully. Even being unsure of when this song was written, the song’s narrative fits with our pandemic isolation. Isolation, angst, hope, and vast unnamed emotions bleed out in this song. Lyrical contradictions weave the American fabric of this song, revealing this songwriter’s strength in crafting narratives. Certainly, “Vagabond Shoes” has earned its place in my 2020 soundtrack playlist.

“Thunder Perfect Mind” is paced like it wants a place on The Beatles’ Revolution. The cacophonous opening creates auditory vertigo, leading to grit-laced vocals pushed down in guitar-heavy mix. It’s stylistically brilliant, right down to the interference, horns, and sonic disruptions. “Ruination Suite” lightly reinforces the feeling that we have all been living some weird episode of The Twilight Zone this year. Adkins then delivers the almost maniacal “Prince Charming Slit His Throat,” crafting frolicking fun out of cohabitation gone bad. Wicked!

Adkins settles into “Bitter Pills” and its acoustic palette, as his unadorned ideas translate perfectly. Rising in a minimalist crescendo, the songwriter’s angst packs a knockout punch, never trying too hard to make the song’s emotions land squarely on the heart. Heading out of the album, “Hazel Barricade Eyes” seems like the show’s wind down. Heartfelt emotions seem overshadowed, based on the album’s sequencing. Technically beautiful, the hollow feeling I am left with may be exactly what the artist was going for. A little over one month ago we had the opportunity to premiere “Save the Day,” and a few things have changed since: our country has coalesced behind two individuals elected to lead the United States back into its global leadership role. Does that make the message of “Save the Day” any less important? In my mind, Adkins’s song shines a spotlight on areas in our country’s institutions that need attention.

Ultimately, Andrew Adkins’ The Echoist shines as a sonic throwback, rocketing into today’s 2020 soundtrack in style. Catch him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Spotify.–Lisa Whealy

Single: The Bipeds’ “Bury the Light”

The Bipeds is a dance and music troupe headed by Stacy Wolfson and Curtis Eller. Eller’s “Bury the Light,” recorded at Studio 808A and produced by Joseph DeJarnette, is the musical part of the Bipeds’ latest project. 

Eller’s banjo and Wolfson’s crystal clear vocals contrast perfectly with the darkness and despair of the visuals. Compositionally nuanced, each instrument harmonizes with the choreography. Joseph DeJarnette (upright bass) and Jack Fleishman (drums) deliver solid backline vibrations. The piece feels like Charlie Chaplin slipping towards film noir, a battle between dark and light (but not simply dark and light), the convergence of visual and sonic experience. 

Stacy Wolfson’s choreography pulses with each beat. The kaleidoscopic visuals might make the watcher think Esther Williams met The Big Lebowski. Eller and Wolfson have conceived a video whose story tells one we all feel. There is magic here, like nothing I’ve experienced in quite some time.

The credits are long for this collaborative project: Jim Haverkamp, Alex Maness, Curtis Eller, and Stacy Wolfson pulled off the detailed production, with Alex Maness as director of photography. Charles Bartee, Hugh Crumley, Steve Cowles, Daisy Eller, Curtis Eller, Anastasia Maddox, Jamie B. Wolcott, Joseph DeJarnette, A’yen Tran, Stacy Wolfson, and Shadow the cat are credited on vocals. Movement creation is by William Commander, Curtis Eller, Jessi Knight, Tatiana Phillips, Michael Rank, and Stacy Wolfson. Editor Jim Haverkamp helped bring the vision to life.

Artistic expression creates emotions. Art creates connections to what we see and hear, processed as a shared experience. Right now, we have no shared experience of live theater or musical performance. But we have this. I cried, realizing the weight of this year, the loss of live performance, culture, and community while watching “Bury the Light” for the first time. Art helps us scream, even through the tears.–Lisa Whealy

Thunder Dreamer keeps us awake

We are disconnected, staying safe behind our masks. Reality’s teeth drip wet with the blood of those killed via the pandemic, racial violence, or political unrest. Music cures what ails us, an antidote pushing away the chaos. Thunder Dreamer’s latest Summer Sleeping on Lonesome Morning Record Co. is a melodic masterpiece, shining sonic light into this year’s multilayered darkness.

The Evansville, Indiana-based Thunder Dreamer’s line up of Steven Hamilton (vocals, guitar), Corey Greenfield (drums), Alex Wallwork (bass), and Zach Zint (piano) creates four-piece magic. Their five-song EP shines with lead singer Steven Hamilton’s vocal tone and complex lyricism contrasted with unpretentious instrumentation. Such musicality seems spiritual in its simplicity. It’s full of homegrown midwestern flavor, bringing to mind the stylistic genius of Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos). 

Mindfully produced by Tyler Watkins (Margot & the Nuclear So & So’s), stunning instrumentation choices appear throughout. The record becomes a sensory experience as Watkins and the band craft the space between each note. Opening with “House and Garden” seems a perfect way to start: sweet storytelling from faraway places where we live in our dreams. Beautifully composed, the song’s almost-harpsichord sound is perfection. Despite that momentary feeling of expansiveness, “Of a Million” contradicts our individuality’s uniqueness, with Hamilton’s guitar and Zint’s piano conversing. This is songwriting at its best, speaking to that inner voice that I think everyone has heard–if they are honest with themselves. 

“Loraine” feels strained, missing Hamilton’s vocal sweet spot in his lower register. Yet the vocal approach demonstrates the challenge the subjects in this song face. Missing the flow of easy connection, we long for that ease another person provides. Stunningly haunted contrasts define key elements of this song’s success. It’s one of the standouts of the release. Broken, sometimes we claw our way back to each other–but sometimes we are lost along the way. 

Bringing the backline front and center, Wallwork and Greenfield shine in closing Summer Sleeping. “Blurred Out” has a heaviness but is yet somehow comforting in its composition. Zint’s piano counterbalances Hamilton’s guitar, pairing with the insinuation that this reality is temporary. Dreams and nightmares are fleeting. Thank goodness we’re awake, ready for full transcendence. The nightmares of 2020 have helped give birth to one of the top releases so far this year with Thunder Dreamer’s not-to-be-missed Summer Sleeping.–Lisa Whealy

Jacob Faurholt’s Wake Me Up speaks to our year

Jacob Faurholt’s Wake Me Up screams out loud what many of us sleepwalking through 2020 may be thinking. The twelve-song album via Raw Onion Records from one of Denmark’s contemporary lyrical masters drops a symphony of sonic brilliance in its minimalist folk. 

Simply stating that Faurholt’s latest work was recorded and engineered in his bedroom studio could seem like jumping on the pandemic bandwagon. Yet working remotely has been part of this troubadour’s approach for quite some time. Calling on friends in California and Switzerland, Wake Me Up reaches inward during a time of forced isolation, ripping slowly at the artist’s internal dis-ease one discomfort at a time. Calling out eclectic lo-fi heroes like Phil Elverum as musical influences, each beat this musical poet shares is influenced by this time warp of our current circumstances. The uncomfortable yet joyfully relatable inner journey into personal reflection depicts our virtual coexistence at its best.

Unleashing the nightmares, opener “All My Heroes Are Dead” is the perfect freefall into Faurholt’s universe. Both plucky and matter-of-fact musically, his lyrical imagery feels maniacal in its calm. Hollow vocals shape this synth-driven song. The grief-stricken follow-up “Don’t Go” with seems to fade into nothing. The sequencing on this record is excellent, with each track advancing the songwriter’s ideas seamlessly.

“Don’t Waste Your Soul” throws the notion of time in the eternal sense into this record. The rich, lush layers of Faurholt’s crystal clear vocals have no competition on the record; this is a standout. Abstract familiarity wraps around us all in “I Love You,” which then trips into the best of the record with “Hi How Are You?” The rambling, matter of fact, whistling-in-the-dark acoustic guitar of “Hi” embraces the notion of emotional support, revealing cracks in the psychological armor through tonal composition. (Behind that psychological armor: the only way this year has been bearable is that we’ve been in it together.) Built with discordant chord structures balanced against an aura of hope, I am grateful other people bear witness to the insanity that we have so far survived, no matter where we live on the planet. 

The title track in Jacob Faurholt’s reality is all of ours. Like Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness that gave birth to Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocolypse Now, this year of death, horror, and fear has changed us. Wandering on near the end of a genius creation, “Pitch-Black” takes a quick hit into technology’s alien world. 

Revisiting the notion that each human being is alone in this, “Don’t Worry About Me” is that quarantine anthem we all know too well. Truth be told, fear is the common thread throughout this year, from Italy’s crisis leading to jellyfish in the Venice Canals to New York City’s terrible experience of COVID-19 in the United States. This song points back to our fears. 

Cara Engel’s “Circus Horses” comes to mind while listening to “Tiny Unicorn,” with its childlike vision of reality. Shifting into the upbeat “Boys & Girls” is perfect, like throwing the doors open after a deep winter storm. Authentic, simple guitar with a sprinkling of piano suggests that somehow we all know we are not alone, right? Closer “We All Need Someone” seems the perfect reminder of humanity’s frailty in the face of isolation for the common good. Plaintive, aching, and soulful, right now is the perfect time to start Jacob Faurholt ‘s Wake Me Up from the beginning.--Lisa Whealy

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Howlin’ Rain’s live record keeps us thinking about the past and future

Everything about the music industry is in flux. Should we thank the pandemic for helping vinyl record sales overtake CDs for the first time in mid-September since the mid-1980s? Maybe that has been one tiny aspect of the music industry that has found a way through these dark times. Now, technology’s historic parallels throw us back, whiplashing us into Bob Geldof’s multi-continent famine relief event Live Aid. This time, though, it’s a different topic. The National Independent Venue Association’s Save Our Stages is a free three-day donation-based music festival on Youtube. The festival is a fundraiser to help independent venues until they can fully reopen. Until we have live music back, though, we have recorded live music to tide us over–like Howlin’ Rain’s latest.

Howlin’ Rain recorded performances for their project Under The Wheels: Live From The Coasts vol. 2 in the band’s 2018-19 tours. If you’re like me, you find something special about the live music experience. For fans of the vinyl, collections like this one from the Oakland, California band feel like being at the show. Music transports us, and that may be the greatest gift this collection has to offer. The music from this project lets listeners experience the rooms where the music was made live on stage. Like The Wood Brothers’ 2019 release Live at The Filmore, great rooms season good live music into co-created experiences we share.

Produced by Howlin’ Rain and Eric Bauer, this is a musical joyride for fans of rock and roll infused with Gregg Allman’s ethos. There’s no doubt “Rainbow Trout” soars thanks to Ethan Miller’s vocals and guitar. Would “The Wild Boys” be as steady-cool without Jeff McElroy on bass? “Calling Lightning Pt. 2” seems perfect on its own, yet the met challenge of sequencing this album shines a light on the talents of engineers Eric Bauer and Andrew Bush. JJ Golden’s mastering connects to the vibe, creating a believable sonic experience like we are all at the same show

Howlin’ Rain’s Under the Wheels: Live From the Coasts comes out October 30 via Silver Current Records. —Lisa Whealy. 

EP: Dan Horne

Dan Horne’s solo debut The Motorcycle Song EP is certainly reflective of the bassist’s regular gigs. Normally on stage with Circles Around the Sun, Grateful Shred, and Jonathan Wilson, these outfits helped Horne’s incredibly cool sonic mind trip explode into the universe.

Does the idea of freedom appeal to us all right now, given our present circumstances? As time keeps weirdly slipping through this year, the producer and troubadour’s contribution to the 2020 soundtrack is a musical flashback to our collective sanity. Balanced, compositionally complex yet effortless instrumental jams like “Blackjack” evoke the freedom and rebellion of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s 1969 classic Easy Rider

Horne takes on Canned Heat’s “Poor Moon” in a looped up frenzy of cool. The classic cut’s reincarnation into the love child of Jan and Dean on doo-wop feels right. This is a masterclass in creating mood and feeling through music. Plucking out the song’s almost maniacal lyricism and time-warping it from 1969 into today’s bizarro world seems perfect. 

Horne’s skill as a producer shines with each restrained mix. The instrumental “Rhythm 55” is a stunning sunset looking out over San Francisco Bay: rich, intricate, emotive, and flowing. The excellent slide guitar reaffirms music’s connection to the soul. With Horne’s cover of “The Motorcycle Song,” transcendence seems complete. Bass-driven with immaculate tonal separation, Arlo Guthrie’s folk classic seems baptized for our times in California’s dreamy Mamas and Papas holy water, saving our soul. And this new version simply rocks!

To say Dan Horne’s The Motorcycle song EP is no ordinary mind-expanding tune-fest seems understated. The quartet of original tracks and politically charged, culturally relevant performances were born in a Dan Horne fan’s paradise.–Lisa Whealy

Video: Andrew Adkins’ “Save the Day”

Andrew Adkins seems prophetic with his latest single “Save The Day,” as we come into what could be some of this year’s darkest days. Stepping out as a solo artist is sometimes the most heroic move a songwriter can do–truly letting the ripcord go. As we hurl our way towards the election of the next leader of the free world, our hero has arrived (even though the song’s birth was in 2019).

Foreshadowing the self-produced folk-rock artist’s upcoming album The Echoist via Elephant Seed Records, Adkins shines as a multi-instrumentalist. Recorded in his East Nashville home studio with stripped-down production values, “Save the Day” comes alive as a throwback beauty, twisting with an analog rock vibe. Soaring guitar solos lead the charge, calling people to consider the current state of affairs, while digesting the horror of our culture at this moment in history. 

I recently asked Adkins about his home studio, and he shared how he engineered musical magic on “Save The Day.” Sprinkling his personal collection of vintage mics around the room (some of which run through replica vintage preamps and compressors via Golden Age Projects), he felt he captured a sense of tension in the music. The sound evokes the foundation of 1960s rock and roll protest, echoing the likes of Buffalo Springfield. The song struts forward in soundscapes that would make Marcus King fans smile, oozing empathetic soul through the Nashville songwriter’s vocal delivery and lyrics. 

The artist’s plaintive, gritty tone is the perfect foil to Abe Covveney’s music video. Striking images of racism, police brutality, and political chaos intertwine with images of protest and a march for change. Images of hope and light contrast against dark moments. This video is a story told by people on the ground, urging engaged participation in our democracy. 

We’ve been given an anthem in “Save The Day” from Andrew Adkins, pushing the fight for change while wrapping us sonically in song. The song helps me feel more connected during these disjointed, turbulent times.

Follow Andrew Adkins on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and his website. – Lisa Whealy. 

Lore City explores light and dark in a unique way

Published in 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s groundbreaking novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus took a new look at life and death, with each character’s inner darkness or light shining. In subtle ways, Lore City’s third album Alchemical Task parallels elements of such ideas. Following up 2014’s Kill Your Dreams, the Portland, Oregon-based duo of Laura Mariposa Williams (vocals, keyboard, guitar) and Eric Angelo Bessel (percussion, keyboard, guitar) found art-rock vibes as a perfect place to begin their entry into the pandemic soundtrack. 

In six songs, Alchemical Task is a journey reminiscent of the sonic textures heard during the early days of Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics, yet more haunting. These songs are mostly lyrically or rhythmically driven, with the structure of this music relying on chant-like qualities. It’s hypnotic in essence. Opening with “Separateness,” listeners can tell there’s something different going on here. The track is rhythmic and soothing, with its harmonic synthesizer bass haunting the march onward. “It’s All Happening” seems like a sonic resignation to some truth. 

“Beacon of Light” shifts towards the light, yet reinforces the notion that we all are born of both dark and light moments. Stunningly beautiful in its brief moment, the song marks a transition for this record. To say Williams soars as a vocalist on “Into the Blue” is an understatement. Her style and substance bring to mind the GoGos’ Belinda Carlisle, with rich emotions bleeding through each note. Heading towards the end of this musical story, “Beyond Done” is perfection as an epitaph for the year 2020. Deeply beautiful, its tense restraint is a testament to the vision of the album. 

Lore City’s album Alchemical Task may not be music for the masses. However, fans looking for a breath of fresh air who gravitate toward atypical bands (like Charming Disaster, who I reviewed earlier this year) may find in this album that missing piece of musical creativity, understated and purposeful in each note.–Lisa Whealy

Video: Kenny Roby’s “Silver Moon (For Neal)”

Music connects us, binding meaning to shared experience, helping us make sense of the unexplainable. Kenny Roby’s “Silver Moon (for Neal)” serves as a sonic touchpoint for friends and fans of Neal Casal. 

The recollection of Roby’s friend and songwriting collaborator breathes an unearthly connection, transporting us to the night of the Neal Casal Memorial Tribute at the Capitol Theatre on September 25, 2019. This song shapes Roby’s album The Reservoir in many ways. Cut paper art animation by Angie Pickman of Rural Pearl Studio brings the song even more to life.

Roby’s rich vocal tone feels like a fire’s warm glow in the moonlight, wrapping through each lyric with an unsettling ache. It’s an expression of the purest form of spiritual love, a child’s heart singing with a man’s confusion, waiting for the universe to guide the way. 

In these strange days, if you’re struggling or know someone who is, here are some resources that may help, courtesy of Kenny Roby: 

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) 
  • SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline: 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727) 
  • MusiCares provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need. MusiCares’ services and resources cover a wide range of financial, medical and personal emergencies, and each case is treated with integrity and confidentiality. MusiCares also focuses on the music industry’s resources and attention on human service issues that directly influence the music community’s health and welfare. 
  • BACKLINE provides easy access to preventative care and crisis management services for music community professionals.  —Lisa Whealy