Kal Marks: Universal Care [Album Review]

Kal Marks
Universal Care
Exploding in Sound Records [2018]


Who: Boston’s Kal Marks get the new year started off on the right foot. Universal Care is my first favorite new record of 2018!

Sound: Universal Care finds the band evolving into a distinctive brand of intense and monolithic noise rock. It is still Kal Marks; they have not gone soft, just more varied in their delivery.

TFN Final Take: For their fourth LP, Boston’s Kal Marks rip open 2018 with the scalding “Fuck This Guy.” It is a frightening, propulsive, almost tribal track. For the life of me, I cannot figure out what singer-guitarist Carl Shane is shrieking about, but I hope it is Trump.

Tracks two and three are more similar to the Kal Marks I have grown accustomed to from their past LPs. Noisy and dense rock. “Loosed” has a groovy bass-line fluttering around in it with punctuations of heavy guitar fuzz and ear-scouring vocals.

Track 3, “Springtime in January” sees Kal Marks step up the tempo and break into heavy punk territory. They place a disorienting pause towards the end of the track just to rev everything up for a final 30-second breakneck mosher.

“Grand Mal,” “A Place Amongst All the Angry Hordes” and “Adventure” are a few other highlights on Universal Care. Each track has its own little quirks and hooks that keep you moving through the album with ease.

The quiet clarity and honesty of “Ode” rips into your heart. Same goes for album closer “Today I Walked Down to the Tree, Read a Book…” it starts so soft and unexpected but eventually gives way to a noise-laden finale.

Universal Care is another fantastic album in Kal Marks’ remarkable discography. Highly recommended for listeners who like their rock noisy and dense. Fans of Pile, Baked, Washer, and the rest of Exploding in Sound Records artists should definitely give Universal Care a shot.

Kal Marks Website
Kal Marks Facebook
Exploding In Sound Records

The Friday Fire Track: Parquet Courts – “Almost Had To Start A Fight/In And Out Of Patience”

Parquet Courts have just announced their fifth album, Wide Awake!, which will be released on May 18th via Rough Trade. Parquet Courts have been crazy consistent with solid output record after record which includes A. Savage’s excellent solo outing Thawing Dawn. The new record was produced by Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, so it is a risk that should make fans nervous but after hearing today’s Friday Fire Track – maybe not.

“Almost Had To Start A Fight/In And Out Of Patience” is a thrill ride that shines a spotlight on the tight songwriting of A. Savage and Austin Brown. The lyrics flow flawless as the lean punk groove that only Parquet Courts can create gels these two songs (parts) together. The best moment comes when “Almost Had To Start A Fight” transitions into “In And Out Of Patience.” The beat changes, the tempo changes and the vocals get turned up a notch. All of this happens though and it works as one song. After there is only one thing to do – play it again. Enjoy your Friday!

Parquet Courts Website
Rough Trade Records

Hovvdy: Cranberry [Album Review]

Double Double Whammy Records [2018]


Who: Based in Austin, Texas, Hovvdy (pronounced “howdy”) is the writing and recording project of Charlie Martin and Will Taylor. The duo, both primarily drummers, first met in the fall of 2014 and quickly bonded over a love for quiet music. Cranberry is their sophomore record.

Sound: If you are into current soft intricate warm jangly rock like Ultimate Painting, Pinegrove, (Sandy) Alex G or past favorites such as Low and Yo La Tengo then Hovvdy should be a great new listen for you to check out.

TFN Final Take: Pacing is everything and on Hovvdy’s sophomore record, Cranberry, the Austin duo of Charlie Martin and Will Taylor take you on a soft ride through 12 new tracks over 33 minutes. These disguised pop tunes have a way to get in your head with every well-placed strum of guitar, every stroke of the keys and every soft hit of the skins. This gentle wave is Hovvdy’s success because the record never tires even though the group maintains a very similar mood and execution through the entire album. What I really liked about Cranberry is the subtle bit of haze that Hovvdy places over their layered vocals. They are a little bit lo-fi and a little bit bedroom pop that consistently pulls a catchy tune together. Hovvdy is a band to just put on, relax and let Cranberry take you to another place.

Hovvdy Website
Hovvdy Facebook
Double Double Whammy Records

– Reviewed by Thomas Wilde

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

Stars: There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light [Album Review]

There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light
Last Gang Records [2017]


Who: Veteran indie pop band from Canada.

Sound: Indie pop with a heart and a head.

TFN Final Take: Stars is like a well-worn glove that is comfortable, reliable, but lacking in surprise or unpredictability. There is nothing wrong with that; they are still great at what they do. And what they do is construct a song, engage you, and give you space to reflect on what you’re hearing. My standout track is “Alone,” which has a chorus that stuck with me. The song takes its time to unfold and then slowly recedes into silence. “Real Thing” is another good one that throws an off-speed pitch for a chorus. Per usual, established fans will find a lot to like in the latest album and new fans will hopefully take advantage of Stars’ great catalog.

Stars Website
Stars Facebook
Last Gang Records

– Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

The Friday Fire Track: Ampline – “Captions”

Let us introduce you to Ampline. Kevin Schmidt, Rick McCarty and Mike Montgomery have been writing, recording and touring as Ampline since 2001. This veteran act just released their fifth full length album, Passion Relapse, on January 26th via SofaBurn Records.

You also might recognize Mike Montgomery from another band we enjoy, as he along with The Breeders’ Kelley Deal, is currently a member of the duo, R.Ring which released their excellent debut Ignite The Rest last year.

Today’s Friday Fire Track, “Captions” gives you a great example of Ampline’s gritty style of rock. The group is clearly from a different era as “Captions” has a very Wash DC groove like Jawbox and the Dischord Records catalog plus some comparison to Hüsker Dü and Hum. The song is aggressive with an edge that is all business. Enjoy your Friday!

Ampline Website
Ampline Facebook
SofaBurn Records

Brian Fallon: Sleepwalkers [Album Review]

Brian Fallon
Island Records [2018]

Fire Note Says: A surprisingly joyful outing, Sleepwalkers makes clear that while Brian Fallon is certainly interested in evolving, it’s not likely that he ever really will.

Album Review: Brian Fallon occupies a singular place in today’s rock and roll landscape.

Like fellow folk-rock travelers Dave Hause and Chuck Ragan, Brian Fallon is the former lead singer of a punk rock outfit with a cult following that survived the band’s heyday, and like any front man who strikes out on their own, he’s trying to find that musical sweet spot between nostalgia and progress; between what’s safe and what’s next.

But unlike his peers, Fallon has long been caught in a swirl of Springsteenian mythology and anticipation of rock and roll greatness; his evolution into the Next Savior of Rock and Roll ™ has been foretold by favorable critics for over a decade now. But after five records with The Gaslight Anthem, one with The Horrible Crowes, a rare EP with Molly and the Zombies and two solo releases, Fallon, now in his late thirties, has made one thing clear to detractors and champions alike: while he’s certainly interested in evolving…it’s not likely that he ever really will.

That hesitation is more apparent than ever on Sleepwalkers. It’s a surprisingly joyful outing, littered with light, jangly, up-tempo tracks, crunchy classic rock guitars and soaring organs, but even as the record emerges as Fallon’s most progressive and experimental to date, it doesn’t stray far from the consistent songwriting structures, blue collar themes and honest poetry that Fallon has dependably delivered for years.

As usual, he wears his influences right on his sleeve, tossing lyrical and thematic shout outs to classics like Etta James, The Beatles and The Clash alongside more contemporary artists like Florence and the Machine, Counting Crows and other familiar Fallon favorites along the way. He summons a vintage Jersey Shore Sound infused with soul, rhythm and blues and doo-wop; the warm organs and plucky, reverb-drenched guitars of “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven” and “Come Wander With Me” lend those songs an air of mystery and drama, while the percussion dares listeners not to tap their foot to the rhythm. A distinct, gospel and Motown-tinged vibe permeates nearly every track, binding them together to create an intoxicating environment of sound tailored for both somber reflection and shameless dancing; a record comprised of “melancholy songs that somehow [make] us feel a whole lot better,” as Fallon sings on lead single “Forget Me Not.”

On Sleepwalkers, as on each of his records, Fallon rarely strays from writing two types of songs: ones about the stories of struggling everyday people, and ones about the agonies of love and death. “Proof of Life” and “See You on The Other Side” are distinctly members of the latter camp, with “See You on the Other Side” finding the songwriter at his most lyrically vulnerable since The Horrible Crowes’ heart wrenching 2012 release Elsie. “And when we both grow old and there’s nothing left to say / I want you to know that I loved you all my days / and when we close our eyes on this lifetime / I’ll see you on the other side,” Fallon tells his lover, summoning the plain spoken ghost of Leonard Cohen to elicit the most complicated emotions with the simplest selections of words.

“Little Nightmares” is a bit of a fake-out, starting herky-jerky and disjointed before bursting into a thrilling headlong sprint that doesn’t let up until the song reaches its zenith. It’s followed by the title track, a genuinely bizarre brass-lead number that finds Fallon at his wackiest; there are few places fans won’t follow Fallon, but this track will push even his most loyal listeners to their limits as it unfurls like a needlessly beefed up B side from Tom Waits’ Closing Time or The Heart of Saturday Night. “Neptune” would be standard Fallon fare if not for the delightfully hokey bass-drums-and-organ main riff that throws the song out of its predictable rhythm and laces it with an unexpected, creepy fun. Cohen’s subtle lyrical touch again appears in spirit on “Watson,” on which Fallon croons “I worry when I get old I’ll be lonesome / chasing all the umbrellas in London,” lyric-checking The Magnetic Fields and treating listeners visual, evocative Fallon storytelling at its best and its least dramatic – an accomplishment for which this heavily romantic and typically indulgent songwriter deserves great praise.

But while Fallon’s lyrics are more poignant and restrained – and thus to greater effect than usual – Sleepwalkers, like its predecessor Painkillers, is almost unbelievably overproduced. Fallon’s best work is marked by abject vulnerability, honesty and rawness, and Ted Hutt makes many of the same mistakes Butch Walker did on Painkillers by smoothing over most of Fallon’s wonderfully rough edges. That being stated, it’s clear that Hutt’s instincts are a far stronger match for Fallon than Walker’s ever were, and overall, his approach encourages Fallon’s best habits, even if moments of real emotion are blunted in the process. It’s possible that Fallon would be best served in the future by working with a fellow punk traveler like Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace or Blind Melon guitar player Christopher Thorn, whose work on Chuck Ragan’s 2014 release Til Midnight captured all of Ragan’s raw strength and none of his weaknesses.

It’s not likely that Sleepwalkers will convert any new hardcore believers, but there’s more than enough feel-good rock and roll nostalgia, evocative writing and fun, finger-snapping rhythms to earn Fallon’s follow up a spot in any record player. Though Fallon may never end up meeting the soaring expectations adoring fans and favorable critics have thrust upon him, he has produced an incredible body of work in the meantime, and Sleepwalkers’ careful progress and safe genre experimentation lands itself a strong position in that discography.

Key Tracks: “If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven” / “Come Wander With Me” / “See You On The Other Side”

Artists With Similar Fire: Dave Hause / Matthew Ryan / Jason Isbell

Brian Fallon Website
Brian Fallon Facebook
Island Records

– Reviewed by Dylan Gallimore

Car Seat Headrest: Twin Fantasy [Album Review]

Car Seat Headrest
Twin Fantasy
Matador Records [2018]

Fire Note Says: Car Seat Headrest give the original 2011 Twin Fantasy a shot of rock adrenaline.

Album Review: Twin Fantasy is a re-recorded, re-imagined new version of Will Toledo’s 2011 self-released Bandcamp record of the same name. Toledo will for sure take some critical hits for this as many were waiting for the proper follow up to the excellent (and TFN #1 2016 record) Teens of Denial. Sure, I was initially disappointed about this approach as well but when you take a step back and hear the new version of Twin Fantasy you will get it.

Toledo’s 2011 version was recorded at age nineteen on an inexpensive laptop and follows his DIY lo-fi approach. It works and is a solid record but now Car Seat Headrest has taken those ten (already good) songs and given them a mobile fidelity type of range that gives each track an entire new depth and life. The full band approach enables each song to explode like the rock song shoes they were originally meant to fill. According to Toledo, he took eight months of mixing just to get the drums right on this new version so you know that this project is not a throwaway.

What I like on the newly re-imagined Twin Fantasy is how everything is cleaner. Being a big fan of lo-fi groups, that is a hard statement for me to make but this record doesn’t lose any of its innocence from the bigger sound. Where before, I think lo-fi for Bandcamp Car Seat Headrest sometimes meant compressing the vocals, guitar and drums. This soaring difference can be heard right away on the first track “My Boy (Twin Fantasy)” as the layered vocals now swirl around the listener for a different experience. The acoustic guitar on the 1:30 simple song “Stop Smoking (We Love You)” now has a true strum and when Toledo pleads “we don’t want you to die,” the song is able to focus in on the seriousness of his vocals. One noticeable lyric change on the record is on the rocker “Cute Thing” when Toledo now sings “God give me Frank Ocean’s voice and James Brown’s stage presence which replaces the original lyric which was “give me Dan Bejar’s (Destroyer, Wolf Parade) voice and John Entwistle’s (The Who) stage presence.” Appealing more to the masses? New heroes? Who knows but only the dedicated will notice. I also liked here how the track listing remains the same and Twin Fantasy is now a bit longer with some of the expanded arrangements.

Fans that have been there from the beginning might have some issues getting into this new version but if you remember Car Seat Headrest’s Matador debut, Teens of Style (2015), collected and re-recorded old tunes as well. The band’s current and expanded fanbase should completely love this record. The album was already great and now it has been tuned up for the seven-piece band to hit the road. Every track soars higher and wider and should get the maximum volume. What the project may lack in originality it earns back all respect with execution because Twin Fantasy for sure will be one of the bigger guitar records you hear this year.

Key Tracks: “Cute Thing” / “Stop Smoking (We Love You)” / “Sober To Death”

Artists With Similar Fire: Cloud Nothings / Ron Gallo / The Strokes

Car Seat Headrest Website
Car Seat Headrest Facebook
Matador Records

– Reviewed by Thomas Wilde

Marriage + Cancer: Marriage + Cancer [Album Review]

Marriage + Cancer
Marriage + Cancer
Self Sabotage Records [2018]


Who: Portland’s Marriage + Cancer continue to scald everything in their path with their caustic noise rock!

Sound: Uncompromising and brutal noise rock not unlike Jesus Lizard and In Utero-era Nirvana.

TFN Final Take: It’s been awhile since Marriage + Cancer’s last release, Killjoy. That 7” came out late 2015. Marriage + Cancer has since completed its transition from Robert Komet’s other band, Nucular Aminals to Marriage + Cancer.

That transition was not just a name change; it was a drastic shift from the quirky dour-pop of Aminals to the full on rage that Marriage + Cancer now embrace. Killjoy served as a bridge between the two sounds, but this new self-titled LP shows that Robert has crossed the bridge and now resides in state of perpetual noise-laden disdain and anger.

That is not a bad thing. I happen to be a big fan of brutal noise rock and this album certainly strikes a chord with me. I have heard a few of the tracks as demos over the past few years, even reviewed a few when Robert released them in 2016 as Demonstrations II EP. Four of those tracks made it to the new LP but they sound so much more rich and full.

“Command + Comply,” “God is Tan” and “Flora + Fauna” bask in higher level of production but the album’s best track, “Gound” really shines. Maybe it is because I can faintly hear a touch of Nucular Aminals in its faster tempo and thrashing riffs. If anything, it is the lone track that gives you a bit of a respite from consistently pummeling you will endure while listening to this LP. Kind of wish there was more of it in the album.

Marriage + Cancer deliver a punishing listen. That is what they set out to do and they do it with zeal. I still miss Nucular Aminals and I highly encourage listeners to check out their discography to go along with this new and exciting direction.

Marriage + Cancer Website
Marriage + Cancer Facebook
Self Sabotage Records

– Reviewed by Daniel Taylor

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