Thursday, November 05, 2015

ROOTS ROCK ROUNDUP (Shawn David McMillen / State Champion / Meg Baird)

Just kidding about "roots rock." I do love the roots of rock (you know like blues, country, folk, boogies, woogies, shuffles, skiffles, Sun Records, softshoes), but the phrase "roots rock" uttered anytime (really from the 1980s on -- dare I blame The Blasters?) can very easily bring to mind a mere nostalgia act or, nowadays, a band of young urban curled-moustache artisans playing at your local gentrified neighborhood's farmer market. Banjos, definitely, along with other instruments that are as much theater props as music-makers. At least two (if not all) band-members wearing some combination of fedora and/or suspenders. "Country-flavored," as Harmony Korine put it on the WTF Podcast. I prefer my roots rock in 2015 to be either unabashed roadhouse dance/brawl music (I can give you no examples), or, if it must be played in the 'post-indie' arena, somewhat spacy and tripped-out, and, more importantly, to not have any immediate and/or overt genre allegiance in its display of said roots (sorry Sturgill Simpson, but a 1970s Waylon Jennings imitation is still a nostalgia act, no matter how many times you mention DMT). Finally, it must have soul, and here are two albums released in 2015 that have plenty of that good ole southern-inflected garage soul:

First up is Shawn David McMillen and his new LP On The Clock With J.J. and Mitch on the 12XU label. We've been listening to McMillen for awhile now, starting in the actual 1990s when he was part of a spaced-out post-krautrock 90s male/female Texas duo called Ash Castles On The Ghost Coast. They released one CD in 1996 on Wholly Other, the house label for Charalambides (another spaced-out post-krautrock 90s male/female Texas duo, as it happens). A few years after that CD, McMillen released, under his own name, a scrambled roots/improv/noise LP called Catfish, and a couple years after that, he released a still very cracked but increasingly song-oriented release called Dead Friends (a fairly grim sense of humor has also shown itself on these records, especially the latter). The title of this brand new 2015 album refers to his band; McMillen plays guitar and sings, while JJ Ruiz plays drums and Mitch Frazier plays bass. JJ and Mitch both sing background vocals as well, so it certainly works from that spaced-out roots-rock Crazy Horse trio template, but this is no carbon copy. JJ and Mitch are light, open, and swinging, and McMillen brings his own loosey goosey voice to it, really coming into his own as a songwriter. I think I saw someone (on Instagram?) compare this album to the Meat Puppets, and they might've even dropped a II into the comment. A big claim, but I really think it's an accurate description of the style. McMillen drawls things like "Kick off your shoes / Gotta take your time" and warbles things like "Walkin' around in the sun all day / Nowhere to go, I think I lost my way / Walkin' around in the sun all day" while playing lots of great guitar, from chunky classic rock rhythm to clean African high life melodies to ripp(l)ing distorted psychedelic leads. Side two stretches things out a bit, in a way even more to my liking, with only 3 cuts (side one has 5), the first a wonderful Soft South African instrumental called "No Passport." Let's hope Shawn, JJ & Mitch keep punchin' that clock.

Today's other new take on the cheese-free heartland roots rock dream is a new 2015 album by Louisville, Kentucky's own State Champion. It's called My Other Car Is A Fantasy Error, and it's on the Sophomore Lounge label. There's a bit of a story here, as I reviewed their first album back in 2010 rather harshly. The band founder, singer, and songwriter (and Sophomore Lounge proprietor) Ryan Davis not only took this review in stride, he's generously continued to send us lots of stuff he's released on his label since then, including great records by Tropical Trash, Sapat, Ma Turner, and more, including this brand new State Champion record, which he thought I might like anyway, despite the negative-review past, and by god he's right. It's not the same lineup that recorded that debut album, and it does seem that Davis has found a band that can double down on his Silver Jews/Pavement/Smog/Drag City ramshackle singer-songwriter influences and play the hell out of 'em and make 'em their own. What's more, he's either writing a lot more hooks, lyrical asides, and punchlines per song than he was on the first album, or he's just figured out how to make 'em cut through and connect; every song has at least a couple that really land, and just the first few lines of the album opener, a nice ranging dynamic tune called "Sunbathing I," contain several: "They're breaking all the trees in my backyard down/They're thinning the air/These bricks are red for a reason/These books ain't read for a reason/It's that time of the season again/I swear I swear aw hell that mailbox hasn't held my mail for years/So you can turn your own snakes to stone/And you can leave mine alone/I've just been minding mine inside my home/A dungeon where the dead do roam/I don't need no one to jerk me off my throne." Can I get a hell yeah?

I was just gonna write about those two albums, but since I've also been listening to Meg Baird's latest Don't Weigh Down The Light every night I feel like I should throw it in here too. I mean, it is pretty spacey, and yeah, it's pretty rootsy (though the roots are more British Isles than Southern USA), but I feel like she's in a league of her own soaring above everyone else anyway. Since she started working with the Drag City label in 2007, she's quietly released a massive album every four years or so, and this latest one (her third) is her best yet. The songwriting digs even deeper than before into a suspended invisible existential realm; as for arrangements, she had a few great musicians on her 2nd record Seasons on Earth, but on Don't Weigh Down The Light she has just one, Charlie Saufley, who is perfect on electric guitar, organ, and percussion, taking Meg's music to levels even more 'next'. It may not be accurate to say that Charlie Saufley is the Charlie Larkey to Meg Baird's Carole King, but I do know that I've already listened to Don't Weigh Down The Light about fifteen more times (and counting) than I've ever listened to Now That Everything's Been Said (but man that "Wasn't Born To Follow" sure is heavy).   

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