Midnight Oil: Armistice Day – Live At The Domain, Sydney [Album Review]

Midnight Oil
Armistice Day: Live At The Domain, Sydney
Sony Music [2018]

Fire Note Says: The “Power And the Passion” lives on with this new burning live set from Midnight Oil.

Album Review: One of the best bits of news early in 2017, was that Midnight Oil had reformed, and was planning a global tour, including 13 dates in the U.S. Although, Australia’s Midnight Oil had made a strong impression on alternative music fans in North America in the early 80’s with albums like 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and Red Sails in the Sunset, their commercial breakthrough didn’t come until 1987 and the release of Diesel and Dust, with it’s AOR hit song, “Beds Are Burning.” It’s unusual for a strongly political song to do so well on U.S. charts, even more so one about the abuse of aboriginal land rights in the Australian outback, but the song’s high energy guitars, undeniable beat, and sing-along chorus became a global anthem. The Oil’s led by singer Peter Garrett was often outspoken on other political issues, especially around the environment, and the band went on to further success around the world until coming to an end in 2002, when he decided to run for political office in Australia’s federal government, where he served in several roles including Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. So the announcement that the band would play 77 concerts on The Great Circle World Tour, playing on 6 of earth’s 7 continents was big news.

Thankfully, after 14 dormant years, someone thought that they should film and record one of the tour’s final dates, not just for posterity but also for those of us fans who were unable to get to city they were playing (speaking personally). Armistice Day: Live At The Domain, Sydney, was filmed for release both on DVD and Blu-Ray, and there’s an audio version, a 26 two-CD set (from which this review was written). One thing needs to be said right up front: this does not sound like a band of elder statesmen who once played in a rock & roll band, but took 14 years off to pursue other interests, and just got back together for a nostalgia tour, and to make some extra cash to cover their retirement. No, far from it. Midnight Oil in 2018 sounds just as potent, energetic and relevant as they did when I caught them on tour a couple times in the late 80’s. If anything, drummer Rob Hirst and guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey are attacking these songs with brutal force for a hometown Sydney crowd, as if to prove the point that this has always been a band that embodied the spirit of one of their best songs, “Power And The Passion.”

And given the long time off, it’s important to point out that this is pretty much the original 5-piece band, with the addition of bass player Bones Hillman, who came on board in 1987, and an additional backing musician, Jack Howard of the band Hunters & Collectors, who added keyboards, trumpet and flugelhorn, and didgeridoo on tour and for this show brought along the H&C horn section for tracks like “Power And The Passion.” That last one is the long, wooden “drone pipe,” a traditional instrument of the Aboriginal people of Australia, comes in handing on songs like “Treaty,” where the Oils are joined by guest vocalist Yirrmal, an indigenous Australian artist.

Recorded on Armistice Day, November 11, 2017, and released a full year later, appropriately opens with the Midnight Oil song of the same name, the global celebration for the end of War to End All Wars, WWI, which is celebrated in the U.S. as Veterans’ Day. All the bands hits are here, as you’d expect, “Beds Are Burning,” “The Dead Heart,” and “Dreamworld” from “Diesel and Dust,” the title track from that album’s follow-up, “Blue Skiy Mine,” and it’s other singles, “Forgotten Years” and “King of the Mountain,” and a few other songs that got airplay outside of their homeland, like “Truganini,” “Redneck Wonderland,” and “Golden Age.”

But, of course, like most bands, Midnight Oil is most-loved and most successful in their native Australia, where fans are far more familiar with their complete 11 studio album catalog, so lots of the songs, lesser known here, got a great response from the hometown crowd, singing along with Garrett on “Power and the Passion,” “King of the Mountain,” “Ships of Freedom” and “U.S. Forces,” which of course is a song protesting U.S. policies, the CIA and “bombs and threats.” In many ways, the social justice themes of Midnight Oil’s music is captured in the lyrics of “Warakurna,” which state that “there is enough for everyone,” and an acknowledgement that the very land that they live on really belongs to the indigenous people who were there before the Europeans arrived, which is true in many places of the colonized world. While there’s no spoken commentary on the audio, no doubt one factor bringing Midnight Oil back at this time in the world’s devolution, is to speak out about concern over climate change, and the growing influence of nationalism, in that sense this band’s music is as timely and important as ever.

But finally, like any other rock band, it’s the music that matters, and Midnight Oil delivers. Much of the time this band rocks, and rocks hard, as heard in the brutal riffage of “Redneck Wonderland,” the torrential bass line of “Stand In Line,” the dominating combination of Hirst’s driving snare beat, and the interwoven guitars of Rotsey and Moginie, but they keep things interesting throughout with artful additions like Garrett’s harmonica on “Blue Sky Mine” and “Truganini,” “Kosciuszko,” which starts off like an acoustic folk song but then is taken over by drums, or the lengthy piano break in “Short Memory.” In 2017, Midnight Oil was as vital as ever, and they’ve announced more tour dates for summer of 2019, evidently that “Power And the Passion” lives on.

Key Tracks: “Beds Are Burning” / “Blue Sky Mine” / “Power And The Passion”

Artists With Similar Fire: U2 / The Tragically Hip / INXS

Midnight Oil Website
Midnight Oil Facebook
Sony Music

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Ruby Boots: Don’t Talk About It [Album Review]

Ruby Boots
Don’t Talk About It
Bloodshot Records [2018]

Fire Note Says: Aussie country rocker with promise debuts States-side for Bloodshot Records.

Album Review: The second album from Ruby Boots roars out of the gate with “It’s So Cruel,” a cow-punk rocker that recalls the energy of Jason & The Scorchers. But before you get your hopes up, producer Beau Bedford (of The Texas Gentlemen), perhaps eager to display the singer/songwriter’s versatility, offers her up in the big doo-wop wall of sound of “Believe In Heaven,” nostalgic for the early days when Phil Spector was producing girl groups as rock & roll was first finding it’s way into the mainstream. “Don’t Talk About It,” the album’s title track, follows. It’s another ballad with orchestration that draws inspiration from that old school retro-sound.

Ruby Boots (real name, Bex Chilcott) comes from Australia via Nashville and had one previous album on an Aussie imprint before this debut on Bloodshot Records, a journey made by Kasey Chambers and others. Following the first three big production numbers, Boots sounds more at home on “Easy Way Out,” with a chord progression borrowed from the Tom Petty songbook, and the country weeper “Don’t Break My Heart Twice.”

The second half of the album sticks closer to country/rock formulas, with “I’ll Make It Through,” co-written and with harmony vocals by Nikki Lane, “Somebody Else” and “Infatuation,” are set up by punchy rhythms, strong vocal hooks, and solid, rocking guitars and minimal twang. Okay Boots has some twang in her voice on “Infatuation.” On these three, and the closing angry, country kick you to the curb slow burner with bluesy guitar and honky-tonk piano/organ that is “Don’t Give a Damn,” Boots sounds a bit like a young Lucinda Williams as the song heats up like a Rolling Stones’ song.

It’s the nearly a capella, almost hymnic “I Am A Woman,” that exhibits Boots’ voice in all it’s unique purity, in a spiritual song that declares her feminine gifts and her internal strength of being, echoing strength alongside vulnerability. On the whole this is a solid, inviting outing, driven by good songs and equally solid performances. Ruby Boots will be one to watch.

Key Tracks: “It’s So Cruel” / “Easy Way Out” / “Infatution”

Artists With Similar Fire: Nikki Lane / Lone Justice / Lydia Loveless

Ruby Boots Website
Ruby Boots Facebook
Bloodshot Records

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Bill Mallonee & The Big Sky Ramblers: Forest Full Of Wolves [Album Review]

Bill Mallonee & The Big Sky Ramblers
Forest Full of Wolves
Self-Released [2018]

Fire Note Says: Bill Mallonee is one of those best-kept secrets you really want to share with the rest of the music loving world.

Album Review: No one is ever going to call singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee an under-achiever. His latest release, a 10 song full-length effort, Forest Full of Wolves is his 78th album by his own count. Mallonee spent the 1990s fronting the Athens, GA-band Vigilantes of Love, shuffling from one label to the next, driving a van from coast-to-coast playing every alternative rock/Americana friendly venue who would let them. Hometown friend, Peter Buck (R.E.M.) co-produced one of the band’s early more-acoustic albums, the Killing Floor. The band’s 1999 album, released on three different labels of the course of 18 months, Audible Sigh was produced by Nashville’s favorite side-man Buddy Miller, and includes a guest vocal by Emmylou Harris, as well as some of Mallonee’s best loved songs. Paste Magazine has named him one of the 100 greatest living songwriters.

A rough count, say there were 10 songs per release (usually there were more), puts Mallonee’s songwriting output at nearly 8000, and those are the one’s he’s recorded. Now basic logic would suggest that they can’t all be good, and surely not all of them are memorable, but Mallonee’s work, his actual raison d’’etre, has proven especially consistent over the decades, and in the 2010’s he’s delivered a solid album’s worth of tunes each year, with a noticeable uptick in production values starting with 2011’s The Power & The Glory. Last year’s excellent The Rags of Absence was a case in point, with Mallonee especially attentive to his lead guitar parts.

Forest Full of Wolves continues to chronicle the challenges to working class people and even songwriters, as if Mallonee is creating his own musical version of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” for what he calls this “new dark age.” “Greed and fear (have) gained the upper hand,” he sings in “Changing of the Guard,” so he’s “grabbed a guitar & a notebook or two… became a phantom with some conjuring ‘neath the moon.”

Musically, Wolves takes the energy of Rags to the next level, with bigger, noiser guitar tones. Mallonee captures a Neil Young jamming with Crazy Horse in the garage vibe throughout, which is likely a lot harder to pull off since Mallonee’s playing all the instruments. Mid-tempo alternative country rock at it’s most earnest and relevant, and against all odds, Mallonee manages to offer a word of hope. “In the New Dark Age” he sings, borrowing the title from a different song that he recording on 2014’s The Winnowing, “the best thing you can do is fall in love.” Of course, “Love Is Always Risky Currency,” but it’s the best chance any of us have of surviving in this “Forest Full of Wolves.”

Like many artists scrambling to make art in the challenging digital marketplace and survive financially Mallonee has struggled to reach out and connect with Americana fans, break ground with new audiences, even though he’s stayed off the road in recent years. As a fan who first heard the singer songwriter live in the early 90’s, and many times over the years, Bill Mallonee is one of those best-kept secrets you really want to share with the rest of the music loving world. It’s artists who wear their passion on their sleeves, who keep pouring out their hearts in songs, that make the music that matters. (One reason to order the hard CD copy of this one, is the cover art produced by another singer songwriter, Chris Taylor, from San Antonio, TX.).

Key Tracks: “In the New Dark Age” / “Voodoo Ink” / “Trimmed & Burning”

Artists With Similar Fire: Neil Young / Bob Dylan / John Prine

Bill Mallonee Website
Bill Mallonee Facebook

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Wrong Creatures Tour 2018 [Concert Review]

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Wrong Creatures Tour, Newport Music Hall, Columbus, Ohio – Friday, February 9, 2018

The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, with it’s gloriously long moniker, arrived in middle America in support of their 8th album, Wrong Creatures (see album review HERE) on Friday night, playing the Columbus club closest to the Ohio State campus on High St. to a pretty full house made up of curious college students and a fair number of fans who were back to see the West Coast post-punk alt-rock trio’s return.

Eager to display their newest material they opened their 90 minute concert with 3 from their latest, sandwiching the album’s most obvious and promising single, “Little Thing Gone Wild,” between the disc’s opening tracks, “Spook” and “King of Bones.” Feedback drenched would prove to be an applicable descriptor throughout the set, while guitarist Peter Hayes and bassist Robert Levon Been traded vocals back and forth, often in the same song. The sound suitably spooky from the get go, and Hayes offering a screaming solo in “Bones,” while drummer Leah Shapiro rocked with solid authority throughout.

The pair moved to acoustic guitars for “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo,” an obvious fan favorite, and then Hayes added a reverb soaked harmonica to the mix on the demented Delta blues of “Ain’t No Easy Way.” Then it was back to their primary instruments, with Hayes adding a keyboard loop, and Been a solid bass line for the rocker, “Stop.”

Then they returned to the new one for “Question of Faith,” with the two vocalists switching instruments as well as sides of the stage, Hayes playing bass, and Been on guitar, who incidentally soloed like a bass player (a common malady). They returned to original positions, but not yet to their original sound. “Circus Bazooko,” with it’s “acid trip on a carousel” keyboard riff, proved more in keeping with the rest of the BRMC repertoire live than in the studio version, but I didn’t find it more enjoyable.

With “Berlin,” which dates back to ‘07’s Baby 81 album, the band recovered the set’s previous momentum with one of the strongest riff rockers of their set, and then continued in that direction with “Conscience Killer,” and followed up with “White Palms,” from the band’s 2001 eponymous debut, which they returned to more and more as the set moved toward it’s climax.

At this point, it’s probably necessary to remind you of the “feedback drenched” quality inherent in the loud, noisy processed guitars that came to define the post-punk and shoe-gazing movements that most inspired BRMC from the beginning. Nowhere was this more obvious on than in the dense, yet moving cover of John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier,” where they ignored the rest of the lyrics and just repeated the refrain, “I don’t wanna be a soldier, Mama, I don’t wanna die.”

The returned to the new one for another of the album’s more promising airplay candidates, “Echo,” which struck a slow haunted groove, and was followed by another from Wrong Creatures, “Carried From the Start,” for which Been added a keyboard part, while Hayes played an extra tom-tom drum, that was set to echo in repeat. Hayes and Shapiro then left the stage, and Been sang an acoustic version of the Pogue (Ewan MacColl) classic, “Dirty Old Town,” after assuring the Columbus audience that he was sincere in saying how great it was to be back and playing new music.

The rest of the band returned for “Shuffle Your Feet,” a Dylanesque song that brought back the harmonica into the mix, and was followed by “Love Burns” and “All Rise,” which grew in musical intensity that was mirrored in the increased use of strong strobe lights facing the audience. It’s not uncommon for these club shows to avoid spotlights, and allow the musicians to get lost in the shadows due to the intense rear-lighting dynamics, but I’ve never seen a band embrace their on stage anonymity with the commitment of BRMC, they cast a bold profile nonetheless, with Been often holding his bass high like he was aiming a rifle and letting it hang low with his strap dangling behind his legs.

I had checked out a couple setlists from previous shows in anticipation of this Newport gig, and the one real surprise was the addition of “Awake,” another from the band’s debut, to the set. Been followed that, with a playful experimental thing, playing some high squealing notes on an echoing loop that he stopped abruptly about a minute in, saying “You’re not ready for that,” and then dove in the strong bold bass line of “Six Barrel Shotgun.” Here the music and the lighting moved toward the set’s climax with growing intensity, and the set closer, “Spread Your Love,” also from that debut album.

The band returned to encore on “Ninth Configuration,” from the latest, and then returning again to their earliest work as a band, closed out the evening with “Whatever Happened to My Rock ‘n’ Roll (Punk Song),” which answered it’s own question, but rocking with reckless abandon, loud, noisy, and yes, drenched in feedback and marked as silhouettes against the onslaught of strobe lights that felt like an obvious attempt to blind us all before we went deaf. Which is to say, like most of the evening’s music, it was a pretty stellar Black Rebel Motorcycle Club show.

-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Calexico: The Thread That Keeps Us [Album Review]

The Thread That Keeps Us
ANTI- [2018]

Fire Note Says: Arizona’s Calexico offers up alt rock anthems and eclectic musical ruminations on the world at risk and the love that will sustain us in “the age of extremes,” on their ninth album, The Thread That Keeps Us.

Album Review: The ninth album from Arizona-based Calexico is yet another artful collection of stories told with the band’s eclectic musicality and a mature songwriting sensibility that shows up primarily in strong, impressive melodies. Rooted in the long collaboration of singer/multi-instrumentalist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, and favoring a playful mix of alternative rock, Americana, Tex-Mex Latin and World music influences, Calexico has stepped up on this new effort to create of statement of hope and “love in the age of extremes” (from the song “End of the World With You”), even as they acknowledge that “the world is falling apart” and some are ground “Under the Wheels (of the war machine).”

Something I didn’t expect is how much singer Burns sounds like Neil Finn of Crowded House on songs like “Bridge to Nowhere” and “Girl In the Forest.” And once you hear it there you hear it in the mature pop leaning songs like “The Town & Miss Lorraine” and elsewhere. True to form, Calexico still has it’s mix of Latin musical sounds, most notably here on “Flores Y Tamales,” which is sung by and co-written with Jairo Zavala in Spanish, and features the trumpets of Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela. There’s plenty of the band’s usual sonic experiments, like the mix of jazzy horns on “Another Space,” which is followed by the more traditional Latin folk feel of the brief instrumental “Unconditional Waltz.

There’s a sense of foreboding in the rather apocalyptic world of the opening alt rock track, “End of the World With You,” which turns a painful corner in the harder riff rock of “Dead in the Water,” and the underlying threats to the environment, to the political order, to individuals struggling to get by get the attention they deserve in the album’s most chaotic song, “Eyes Wide Awake.” The bleak reality of a world at risk comes through the lyric “home’s waiting like a motherless child” in “Thrown to the Wild,” which expands musically to embody that sense of loss and dread.

But, as I said at the top, for all the awareness of brokenness and desolation, The Thread That Keeps Us is the hope and love that sustains us even in “extreme times,” which shines through here and there on the record but is crystallized most clearly in the closing track, a ballad written from a father to his daughter, “Music Box.” It contains the promise that “when the world goes dark/I’ll always be close by/to hear your dreams unfold/hold you when you cry,” as if to say that we’ll keep on keeping on, going up against the chaos, if for no other reason than to make sure the world is here for those who will follow us.

Key Tracks: “End of the World With You” / “Bridge to Nowhere” / “The Town & Miss Lorraine”

Artists With Similar Fire: Iron & Wine / Crowded House / Ryan Adams

Calexico Website
Calexico Facebook

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real: The Visitor [Album Review]

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real
The Visitor
Reprise Records [2017]

Fire Note Says: At 72, Neil Young is still making a difference, wearing his politics on his sleeve, and producing anthems for the resistance.

Album Review: Neil Young has never been an artist to shrink back from a difficult political moment and leave you guessing what’s on his mind. Back in 1970, he released “Southern Man” about America’s issues with race, and “Ohio” which honored those who had died in the Kent State protests against the war in Vietnam. And as recently as 2006, he spent the entire Living With War album taking apart the Bush Administration and it’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That same year, Young hit the road with Crosby, Stills & Nash to revisit all their past protest songs which had a renewed sense of relevance. It was funny to hear stories from that tour of long-time fans walking out of their shows angry when Young performed “Let’s Impeach the President,” because their politics had grown more conservative. You can catch a glimpse of the audience response in the tour documentary film, “CSNY Déjà Vu.”

So it should surprise no one, that here in 2017, in one of the most contentious political seasons that anyone can remember, that Young has a few things to get off his mind about the Trump administration. This is Young’s second album with the Promise of the Real, a band fronted by two of Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah. Their first collaboration with the 2015 album, The Monsanto Years, taking on the issue of GMO’s in much the same way that 2003’s Greendale addressed the way environmental issues and economic difficulties were impacting small time American life. Between those two albums, Young released the solo album, Peace Trail, recorded with studio musicians, and Hitchhiker, a solo acoustic album recorded in 1976. Together with Young’s launching a website that makes available to fans everything he’s ever recorded and released in one location, neilyoungarchives.com, it’s obvious that this 72 year old is still feeling vital and productive.

Young wastes little time getting to the point on The Visitor. Right from the start, Young confesses to his Canadian heritage, before assuring anyone within reach that he loves “the USA… The Freedom to Act, the Freedom to Say.” Declaring that America is “Already Great,” a clear reference to Trump’s “MAGA” theme, Young says, “you’re the promised land, the helping hand,” and then echoing protesters chants of “No wall/No hate/No fascist USA” and “Who’s street?/Our street,” a sentiment expressed in the recent anti-police violence protests in St. Louis this Fall. So there’s no hidden agenda here, Young’s still wearing his politcs on his sleeve.

The Nelson boys and their Promise of the Real cohorts are a good fit for Young’s music here, capable to get heavy like he has in the past with Crazy Horse, but also proficient with the loose jam band/Americana vibe that comes just as naturally to Young. Of course, on an anthem like “Stand Tall,” Young’s polemic is a call to action against the current administration, of which he says “The Boy King don’t believe in Science/It goes against the Big Money Truth/His playpen is full of Deniers/They’ll flush our future down the tubes,” and tellingly you can hear a Creationist voice their belief that the earth is only 6000 years old, as the song comes to the end. In the second verse he celebrates women’s rights, and the rainbow of diverse humanity. This is clearly an album aimed at the Resistance.”

On a couple of tracks, Young seems so angry he can’t even find the words to express it. In “Diggin’ a Hole,” Young is worried about the world we’re leaving to his grandchildren in this blues call and response, they’re “gonna need a long rope” he sings, to get out of that hole. In “When Bad Got Good,” Young proves to be prescient, as the song hangs on the “lock him up,” chant that was in the news the week after the record was released when General Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but Young was aiming his venom at “the Liar in Chief.”

But not everything here is obviously a political rant against our President. “Change of Heart,” feels vaguely autobiographical, the reflection of someone looking back over their life and acknowledging the ways they’ve grown and stretched and changed their mind. “Carnival” brings a Latin rhythm to a parable about a child’s experience of the Circus Freak Show which can at times resemble the everyday life we share. “Children of Destiny,” complete with full orchestration, is a call to action again, but more generally, Young wants us all to “Stand up for what you believe/Resist the powers that be/Preserve the land and save the seas.”

Musically, Young is not reinventing the wheel, this is Young’s country influenced folk/rock, supported by a band of youngsters not very different from when he was recording his early albums with the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash. “Forever,” is a secular hymn of sorts, celebrating that “Earth is like a church without a preacher,” and “the people have to pray for themselves.” You can hear Neil struggling to hit the high notes, and it’s going to feel reminiscent to this artful rocker, who is sure even at this late date that he wants “to make a difference… on the road to heaven’s door.” And, as in his past, these songs will live on in the souls of people who find his words and music an encouragement on the journey. Not many of us will still be making work that stands up alongside our best efforts when in our 70’s, but Neil Young is beating the odds.

Key Tracks: “Already Great” / “Children of Destiny” / “Stand Tall”

Artists With Similar Fire: Bob Dylan / Willie Nelson / Crosby, Stills & Nash

Neil Young Website
Neil Young Facebook
Reprise Records

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Wrong Creatures [Album Review]

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Wrong Creatures
Vagrant Records [2018]


Fire Note Says: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club delivers another solid outing shaped by riff-rock and post-punk distortion.

Album Review: There are those bands that you just want to root for, they may not yet have produced that breakthrough album you know they are capable of, but you just sense they have it in them. Black Rebel Motorcycle is one of those bands for me. First off, they have a kickass name (borrowed from Marlon Brando’s gang in the movie, “The Wild One”), second they made smart riff rock that suggested classic rock influences like Led Zep, but they had an affinity for noisy distorted guitars ala The Jesus & Mary Chain and shoe-saze bands like My Bloody Valentine, and third, “Whatever Happened To My Rock & Roll” on the band’s debut was one of the best rock songs of 2001.

Also, probably a factor, bassist Robert Levon Been is the son of Michael Been of The Call, a band I also thought would one day breakout in a very big way, and although they made albums I thought were great, the closest they ever came to a hit song was “Let The Day Begin,” which seemed to attract the Frat Rock crowd for all the wrong reasons. With The Call inactive in recent years, Michael traveled on tour with BRMC doing sound for the band, but died off a heart attack when they were in Belgium to play the Pukkelpop Festival (Aug. 2010). As a tribute, BRMC recorded “Let The Day Begin” on their 2013 album, Specter at the Feast, putting their own heavy, distorted spin on the familiar guitar hook, Robert giving his own take on his father’s melody.

If tragedy doesn’t follow BRMC, it’s stayed a close companion over the years. The band formed when Been and long-time high school friend, guitarist Peter Hayes, decided to play together after Hayes finished a stint in the Brian Jonestown Massacre. From 1998 to 2008, drummer Nick Jago completed the trio, but in his later years there were issues with addiction and conflict. He was eventually replaced by Leah Shapiro who, had toured previously with The Raveonettes, and she has played drums on the band’s last two fine albums, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (2010) and Specter (2013). In 2014, Shapiro had brain surgery, but has fully recovered and plays on the new one, Wrong Creatures.

Early on, you get a sense for the band’s knack for building a solid rocker out of a catchy guitar riff, in “Spook” and “King of Bones.” “Haunt” follows with a slower, bluesy sound to match its title, but in “Echo” BRMC sounds like they are making a nod toward U2, with the most pop-friendly melody on the record, and a guitar sound from the Edge songbook. The mid-section of the album finds BRMC playing loose and in their own unique groove on “Ninth Configuration,” “Question Of Faith,” and “Calling Them All Away,” all longer songs, with plenty of distortion and that big, thick, noisy sound that feels most natural for BRMC.

“Little Thing Gone Wild” is back in riff rock territory for a quick, fun burst of rock & roll, but then comes “Circus Bazooko,” which has a quirky calliope keyboard thing going on that feels pretty out of place on the album. The superfluous “Carried From the Start” and the too long piano closer “All Rise” finish up the album.

Twenty years in, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have produced eight solid albums, they have a solid live show (they’re on tour now), and plenty of strong material, but that breakthrough I anticipated, both artistic and commercial, eludes them still.

Key Tracks: “Spook” / “Echo” / “Ninth Configuration”

Artists With Similar Fire: The Verve / The Jesus & Mary Chain / Love and Rockets

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club Website
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club Facebook
Vagrant Records

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Glen Hansard: Between Two Shores [Album Review]

Glen Hansard
Between Two Shores
ANTI- [2018]


Fire Note Says: Irish folk rocker Glen Hansard, of The Swell Season and The Frames, continues to deliver strong songs.

Album Review: One of my favorite musical scenes in film is that long opening sequence at the beginning of the movie “Once,” where you can hear Glen Hansard playing guitar and singing while the camera tracks along the dark streets of Dublin before settling on the singer/songwriter busking in front of a storefront. Knowing that Hansard’s career began as a teenager playing for tips on the streets, his guitar’s worn look, (it has a hole in the face) and his haggard vocal as he played live gave the film an air of authenticity, an edgy street quality. Of course, that film launched The Swell Season, Hansard’s collaboration with Czech singer/songwriter Marketa Irglova, his co-star in the film, the two winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2007.

While the international splash made by that film introduced Hansard to much of the world, he’d already had a long musical career with the Irish band The Frames beginning in the 90s, and even had a role in Alan Parker’s “The Commitments,” where Hansard played the role of the hapless Irish band’s lead guitarist. Hansard’s most active work with the Frames took place between the band’s debut in ’91, and ’06, but they came back together for an album in 2015. But it you enjoy Hansard’s work with Irglova in The Swell Season, and would like to check out his earlier work, I’d recommend The Frames’ tremendous live album, Set List, to get a feel for Hansard’s fun storytelling and the band’s visceral connection with the hometown Dublin audience.

Hansard opens Between Two Shores with the up-tempo R&B leaning “Roll On Slow,” with a horn section, Hammond organ, and bluesy lead guitar solo, that feints in the direction of The Commitments’ sound, which shows up again on “Wheels On Fire,” but most of this third solo album leans toward familiar folk and light rock that has more in common with The Swell Season. Hansard has reported that the fellow Irish Van Morrison was one of the early influences on his musical identity, and you can hear Van’s soulfulness seeping through “Why Woman,” “Movin’ On,” and the closer, “Time Will Be the Healer.”

There’s an intimate folk singer/songwriter quality throughout Between Two Shores, as Hansard wears his heart on his sleeve on songs of love desired, tested, lost and hoped for, most notable on “Wreckless Heart,” and songs that feel like next chapters to songs in Once and by The Swell Season. Irglova even shows up to sing backing vocals, and members of the Frames—Rob Bochnik (guitar), Joseph Doyle (bass), and Graham Hopkins (drums)—show up alongside talented studio players like Justin Carroll (keys) and Rob Moose (strings/arrangements). But this mature pop album centers around Hansard’s lovely vocals, seasoned song-craft, and traditional Irish music textures.
Key Tracks: “Roll On Slow” / “Movin’ On” / “Time Will Be the Healer”

Artists With Similar Fire: The Swell Season / Van Morrison / The Frames

Glen Hansard Website
Glen Hansard Facebook

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Björk: Utopia [Album Review]

One Little Indian Records [2017]

Fire Note Says: While highly recommended, Björk’s tenth album is still a challenging listen.

Album Review: Listening to the latest from Icelandic chanteuse Björk, can feel like stepping through the curtain to enter an audio/visual piece at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. At first it can feel jarring, disorienting as the music pulses with what may seem at times like several different pieces of electronic music at once, and perhaps a recording of bird sounds and the occasional appearance of a string chamber orchestra, or a vocal choir. So, it’s only natural that MoMA hosted a career retrospective look at Björk’s recording output back in the Spring of 2015, which included a film room running films of videos for “Black Lake,” “Stonemilker” and “Lionsong” from that year’s romance haunted release, Vulnicura.

Björk has described Vulnicura as her heartbreak album, and the tormented feel in the music was an expression of the hell of divorce, and lost love. With her new one, Utopia, she intends to give voice to the very opposite experience, that of paradise, and while Vulnicura dealt with a very personal loss, in the music of Utopia she seeks to celebrate the more universal feelings of love in creation/nature, human contact and community. Working again with Venezuelan producer Acra, Björk fills the aural canvas with an unusual musical journey, that would be jarring to someone expecting anything resembling a pop music experience.

While highly recommended, Björk’s tenth album is still a challenging listen, requiring a commitment to lean into the experience. Background music this is not. While songs like “Saint,” “Tabula Rasa” and the title track are delivered in a rather straight-forward fashion, the denser selections like the lengthy “Body Memory” can require repeated effort to get to get a bit of a handle on. The pay-off comes in moments of seemingly random beauty, amid orchestral juxtapositions designed to extend your senses. Dive in.

Key Tracks: “Future Forever” / “Features Creatures” / “Utopia”

Artists With Similar Fire: The Sugarcubes / Laurie Anderson / St. Vincent

Björk Website
Björk Facebook
One Little Indian Records

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

Hüsker Dü: Savage Young Dü [Album Review]

Hüsker Dü
Savage Young Dü
Numero Group [2017]


Fire Note Says: This 69 track box set delivers a rare and complete look at seminal Minneapolis hardcore punk trio, Hüsker Dü’s early beginnings, a collector’s dream.

Album Review: By the time Hüsker Dü – Grant Hart, Greg Norton and Bob Mould – were playing their first gig in 1980, the first wave of punk bands like the Ramones, Television and Patti Smith had signed to major labels and the hardcore scene was driven by bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, and the Minutemen. The Du came up in the same Minneapolis scene that produced the Replacements and Soul Asylum, which had previously been known as Loud Fast Rules, which is an apt description of that sound’s guiding principles. I have a mild form of tinnitus (ringing in the ears), that I attribute to attending a Hüsker Dü show during the four years I lived in St. Paul for grad school in the early 80’s, although I have to admit that those years I reviewed Ozzfest for the St. Louis daily likely contributed some. Please, young ones, wear ear protection to live rock shows.

The long journey for these long lost recordings of the band’s early demos, rehearsals and live shows to the finished box-set is almost as storied as the explosive trio itself. Hüsker Dü’s brief often brilliant career was riddled with tension and conflict, especially between the band’s two most productive songwriters, Mould and Hart. The band’s unique blend of power-pop, punk, noise, and hardcore thrash, proved influential to band’s as varied as Nirvana, The Pixies, Metallica and Smashing Pumpkin, but universally critics and fans agree that the band’s earliest releases with SST Records, the label of Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, suffer from a cloudy, even muddy mix.

This collection draws heavily on early alternative recordings made by the band’s soundman and friend, Terry Katzman, reportedly 130 or so, which were often recorded right off the band’s soundboard, including an alternative version of Hüsker Dü’s early live album, Land Speed Record, drawing on a recording of a different show in that same time period. So, while these tracks sound better than ever before, they still have that lo-fi recorded in a garage quality, because a lot of them were recorded on cheap equipment in a garage.

At the end of “Insects Rule the World,” a fun example of the band’s bubble gum pop potential, we hear one of the band admit “We’re not the most professional band in the Twin Cities… we have fun though, we have fun.” And the fun here is shared, especially for Hüsker Dü fans, as we get to see the band finding its sound and working out the trios creative kinks in real time, in early songs that capture that adolescent angst, confusion, anxiety and anger that fuels so much of punk. Routing romance problems made all the more conflicted by heavy doses of hormonal longing show up in “Can’t See You Anymore,” “All I’ve Got to Lose Is You,” and “Sexual Economics;” go ahead and count the number of lyrical references to “erotic dreams.” These guys were growing up in public, fighting to make sense of the world and even fighting each other, and at the same time they were producing great music original new music along the way. Give a listen to “Writer’s Cramp” and tell me it’s not just perfect.

Of course, we know what happened to Bob Mould, who has had a significant solo career, and also lead another power pop/post-punk trio, Sugar, for a few years. Gary Hart, after overcoming heroin addiction, moved from drums to guitar and led the band Nova Mob, and continued to release solo albums, before dying of liver cancer earlier this Fall. Bassist Greg Norton, who’s melodic playing has proven very influential, spent some years running his own restaurant, and more recently has played in a number of bands, most recently in Wisconsin band, Porcupine. But together they were a force of nature. Hart and Mould’s great songs, and the latter’s ebullient, if at times savage attack on the guitar has left an ineffable mark on the music world.

Given the vast number of taped recordings found in Katzman’s collection, we may get more releases down the road, but in the meantime this large collection offers the best listens for fans to the music on their first two albums, Everything Falls Apart and the live Land Speed Record, as well as at least ten songs never heard before. But if you don’t love Hüsker Dü already, and have a deep appreciation for that early punk history, this loud, fast band will just feel like so much noise… powerful, creative fun noise to be sure, but noise nonetheless.

Key Tracks: “Writer’s Cramp” / “Can’t See You Anymore” / “Sunshine Superman (Donovan cover)”

Artists With Similar Fire: The Replacements / Bad Brains / Minutemen

Numero Group

– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb

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