Eisley: Currents

Release Date: May 28, 2013

When I first encountered Eisley as an unsigned band, I was extremely impressed – and not just because they were fronted by 3 sisters ranging from 15-19 years old (Stacy, Sherri, and Chauntelle DuPree). Their first major-label full-length record, Room Noises satisfied expectations while smoothing out some of the rough production of their indie releases. On Combinations, their followup, it felt a bit like someone was telling them to smile real hard and make music that will make sense to the masses – I’ve never connected with it. Then they released their master-work, The Valley, which blew all previous accolades out of the water. So, how do you follow up such an album?

For Currents, the band took full control of the production. They involved more of the family in the process with brother Weston (drums) and cousin Garron (bass) contributing to the writing and recording on a level that they hadn’t before. (They are also joined by their additional siblings Christie and Colin of Merriment on a track.) And they took their sound back to the beginning while infusing mature lyrics to their already amazing harmonies.

The result is good on its own and exists on almost a whole different plane than what the band has done before. If it’s possible to reboot a band without changing the lineup, Eisley has done it. They exorcised their demons on The Valley and have emerged re-energized, wiser, and perhaps more excited than ever before… That said, I can’t help but be a little disappointed to hear them not continue in the same vein as the sound of The Valley – a heavier (sonically and thematically), emotion-filled attack on the senses.

The themes here have a much more positive vibe than anything the band has done in the past. While some of the lyrics are difficult to make out (more on that later) there seems to be a couple of common themes: love and faith. In fact, this record seems to show the band putting their faith on display more than they ever have. It’s always been a part of who they are, but has not blatantly seeped into their records – to be fair, it’s hard to talk about faith when singing about winter wizards, candy forests, a gumdrop mountains.

The biggest standout track is “Millstone“, the first full lead vocal track from the eldest Dupree sibling, Chauntelle. While each sister (including Christie on “Wicked Child”) has a very similar voice, Chauntelle’s tone brings a welcomed groundedness to a previously airy collection of tracks. The sparse production on “Millstone” also serves as a nice change of pace for the record and allows Chauntelle’s voice to be on full display.

The biggest successes here ride on the vocal interplay of the singers. The simple addition of a heretofore unheard male vocal on “Save My Soul” is a welcomed gift. Sans liner-notes, I’m left to believe that this is the previously stated guest vocal from Max Bemis of Say Anything (and husband of Sherri). I’m a huge fan of Christie’s voice and her placement opposite Sherri on “Wicked Child” creates a wonderful balance.

The misses for me on the record are really in the production department (a responsibility that the band was excited to have full ownership of this time around). Save for a couple of standout tracks (“Millstone”,”Find Me Here”) the vocals are very buried in the mix making the lyrics a bit harder to comprehend.

While I’m glad to see the guys take more of a leadership role and get the recognition they deserve for their years in the band, the production on the bass and drums is a bit much for my taste. It reminds me of the re-formation of Ben Folds Five who offered pretty balanced mixes in their first incarnation, but crank the bass and drums up to 11 on their reunion album with previously Five-less Folds.

While it lacks the urgency of its predecessor, Currents succeeds far more than it fails. It doesn’t try to recreate the simplicity of the past, but it pays homage to a deep history as a band and as individuals while clearly stating, “this is where we are in life, we know who we are, and we know what we’re about… but we may still be discovering ourselves musically.” And maybe they always will be.

Thirty Seconds to Mars: Love Lust Faith + Dreams

Release Date: May 21, 2013

Let’s get right to this: I love the This is Warrecord. I wasn’t as impressed with the Up in the Air single that came out a few months back, but maybe it was just out of context at the time. One thing is for sure. Going from a growling tiger (This is War) to a technicolor dot pattern cover here does not bode well.

Here’s the thing, as far as I’m concerned, if you can vocalize emotion and utilize grand archetypes then your lyrics don’t really have to mean anything in order to be meaningful. Jared and company did this masterfully on This is War – specifically their massive single, “Kings and Queens“.

On this effort, Thirty Seconds to Mars, looks for ways to blend their emo-sensibilities with anthemic rock and 80’s epicness. At some points they succeed, at others they fall short. On the whole, they fail to reach the place of transcendence that they found on their previous release.

The lead single, “Up in the Air” has grown on me more as familiarity has developed. It really feels like the only radio-ready track on the record. Its trouble – and the trouble with much of this record – is its busy-ness. It’s almost as though the bpm subconsciously puts the listener on edge.

Warning: This is a wigged out video with a single expletive and some absurd visuals.

City of Angels” is the first point of resonance for me. Rather than utilizing noise to propel the track forward, Leto’s vocals are allowed to shine. The steady beat and strings section keep it grounded. The lyrics, while still somewhat ambiguous, rely on familiar tropes that are repeated throughout the album and weave a thread back to the bands earlier work.

Going in a completely different direction, “End of Days” almost has a Soul sound to it which is a welcomed change of pace but not something they should make a habit of. For some reason they decided to allow Cutting Crew to remix the “Imperial March” for Star Wars (no, not really) then let Jared sing in a traditional Indian style over the top of it for “Pyres of Varanasi“. “Convergence” is a rather playful instrumental which serves as a late-set, much needed palate cleanser. A fairly odd move, “Depuis le Debut” (from the start) closes the album, but sounds more like an intro.

In my opinion, the band best finds their stride on “Do or Die“. Building on a base of heavy use of the floor tom and U2-esque guitars is the right choice. Jared’s voice is allowed to rest at home base during the verses, making it relatable. It kicks into high gear on the chorus and is augmented by the emo-choir-style vocals that really made This is War such a great work. Personally, I like this better as the album closer, perhaps with an epic drum and guitar instrumental followed by choir vocals acappella to close.

With the title, the flow, and the fact that some girl randomly intones “Love” “Lust” “Faith” “Dreams” intermittently throughout, I know there’s some sort of thematic intent here. I just don’t hear it. The record feels disjoint as though every 3 songs is trying to squeeze one of these big concepts into a short movement – yet there seems to be a lot of lyrical overlap. Maybe it would have all made more sense as a set of 4 EPs? That is to suggest that there is any sense to be made of Jared Leto. At points it feels like he’s mad-libbing his way through a choose your own adventure of songwriting – here let’s all try. Choose A-D from line one and match with A-D from line two to start your own Thirty Seconds to Mars song:

I feel like A) a king, B) an angel, C) nothing, D) a mystery / lost on my own.

Fighting A) my feelings, B) these strangers, C) for something, D) my history/ so far from home.

Of course, I jest. I like these guys and I like this genre (I’ll lump Angels and Airwaves in with them). I just was hoping for more.

Eisley: The Valley

Release Date: March 31, 2011

With a new record on the way next week, I wanted to go back and review Eisley’s previous record, The ValleyPersonally, I think that they will be hard-pressed to surpass this near-flawless work of art, but we shall see.

There are some songs and albums that are incredible, but enter a whole new echelon when you begin to grasp where they originated from. Several that come to mind: Ben Folds Five’sBrick” telling the story of an actual abortion, Gary Allan (covering Vertical Horizon) on “Best I Ever Had” following his wife’s suicide. These are abysmal circumstances but as the writers and performers exorcise their inner demons and turmoil, we experience our own catharsis. Such is the case with this entire record.

Following the release of 2007’s Combinations, the band entered into a lengthy struggle with their parent label, Warner Bros., which eventually led to their release. Add to this the ugly divorce of lead singer Sherri Dupree and the late-stage-engagement breakup of sister/guitarist Chauntelle and the band found themselves clearly in the proverbial Valley.

With a couple of years to recover which saw all three sisters (including chief songwriter Stacy) get married and sign with a new label, they had no lack of material. They masterfully took every drop of angst, heartbreak and recovery and filled every song to over-flowing with emotion. The results: a near-masterpiece.

The album opens with it’s title track, an overview of the journey that has been and which we are being invited into. The sparse intro with vocals over strings is one of the truly transcendent moments in music and is quickly jolted forward with the driving kick drum and soaring vocals.

Smarter” is possibly the closest thing to “diss track” that this band will ever put out. It shows Sherri as strong and (unironically) smart, but there’s still a sadness or disappointment that makes this very aggressive song still heartbreakingly vulnerable.

When hosting the other Dupree siblings (Merriment) for a performance at a corporate event last year, I had the chance to talk to their mother who gave me a little more insight into the events that precipitated the song “Ambulance“. As she told (and forgive my hazy memory), Sherri had gone to visit her husband while his band was on tour. She found him with another woman and he told her to get out of the hotel or he would have security remove her.

I need an ambulance / I took, I took the worst of the blows / send me a redeemer, let me know /if I’m gonna be alright / Am I gonna be alright… ‘Cause I was told to get out / told to leave / told to have my things in the parking lot…

In my mind, the fact that Stacy was the one to pen these words on her sister’s behalf makes it even more impactful.

Other great tracks round out the collection including “Mr. Moon“, “Better Love“, and “Oxygen Mask“. I’ve never really noticed any failures on the record, it’s just that some resonate more soundly than others. If have one complaint about the production, it’s not really about the production but about live performance… this is a great rock band, but as the videos above showcase, they are equally astounding in an acoustic environment. In live, full-band performance, some tracks are used to recreate sounds on the record that were not replicable live – namely: strings section on several tracks. My philosophy: in the studio, create to your heart’s content but when you hit the stage only give me what you can actually play live. It may not sound as full as the record, but I’ll respect you more for it.

I wrote before of how I was introduced to this group very early in their career when their ages ranged from 15 to 21, when perhaps innocence and naivete abounded . I would never wish the circumstances that precipitated this record onto anyone. However, I’m encouraged to see a close-knit family wrap around one another and carry themselves through the valley to a much stronger place on the other side.

Shane & Shane: Bring Your Nothing

[Disclaimer 1: With all due respect to Shane Everett (whose Window to the Inner Court is a fabulous record), I knew Shane Barnard first and have always referred to the man himself and the collective plural as simply “Shane” and I don’t plan on changing that here.]

[Disclaimer 2: I’ve never tried to build this brand on the idea of journalistic integrity. My name is the URL. I’m no critic, I’m just here to share my passion and hopefully pass it along to you. That being said, this is not really a review at all. It’s the story of trying to journey alongside an artist as life takes you in different directions.]

[Disclaimer 3: I’ve written about some “religious” records already and kept my thoughts mainly focused on the music and left my spiritual thoughts on a fairly sentimental level. Maybe that’s for fear of not being a believable writer. Maybe that’s for fear of offending any non-religious readers. I hope that in doing so, I’ve gained enough credibility with those who might be turned off by that sort of thing that you might allow me a little more freedom today. I think that no matter what you believe, we can all learn something from one another’s journey and I hope you’ll take the time to read this.]

One of my first experiences in college was a Shane Barnard concert. I knew of Shane because, well, let’s face it, I’ve always had my finger on the pulse of culture. I picked up a copy of his Rocks Won’t Cry record that night and if it had been a cassette tape I would have worn through it over the ensuing college years. I would try to find ways to get out of my own responsibilities on Tuesday nights to go across town and hear him play. I would download concert bootlegs of crappy recordings from all across the state. Shane was my guy. He was playing music that was honest and real without a trace of hokey. He was talented in every dimension – as a songwriter and vocalist. He was the guitar player we all aspired to emulate.

His second indie record, later co-opted as his firs major label record, Psalms, succeeded in keeping the feel of the live experience and rawness that Shane was known for. This came in no small part thanks to the fantastic collection of songs (in many a late night sing-along we would all vie for position to see who would play “Psalm 145” first) and the simple, but complete, production work of David Parker and Chris Clayton.

And then, nothing changed. But everything changed. I left college. Shane was no longer playing across town every week. The bootleggers graduated and moved on. Major label deals being what they are kept new content from flowing freely or quickly. And subsequent records took on a more “polished” feel giving us 2-3 great tracks per record as opposed to the previous 7-8 out of 12.

Do you have an old friend from high school or college – not your best friend, but just someone you were really close to? Say you haven’t talked to them in a while – 2, 3, 4 years, maybe longer – but you re-connect on facebook and decide to get together. You’re glad for the connection, but don’t make much of a big deal about it. Then as the day and time get closer, you find yourself getting nervous. You feel unexplained feelings. Is it nostalgia? What is it? You begin to realize the size of the hole left in your heart from being without this person. The feelings of loss that we’ve learned to suppress and glaze over throughout the years are finally revealed as a facade. You missed this person and it kind of hurts. Then you sit down with them and it’s the most awkward thing ever: an internal (possibly irrational) flood of emotion and an external lack of any topic to connect on. You leave the interaction feeling devastated, deriding yourself for expecting anything different, grateful for closure, but sick from it. This is my experience in listening to the music of Shane Barnard. Depressing, isn’t it.

Obviously, college is an emotion-filled, awkward, coming-of-age time in life. You experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I experienced all of that with Shane (in my CD player). I looked to him on 9/11. If he had cancelled his service, I would have requested to cancel mine. I’ve listened to his set from that night over and over for the better part of 12 years and while “good” is not the right word for it, it is transcendent. His set from the service before Christmas runs laps around his actual Christmas record and was the only Christmas music I would listen to for years.

When I was in college, I had a lot of problems – I just didn’t know it yet. I was active in my religious functions. I was a leader. And it wasn’t fake or forced or disingenuous. But I was incomplete. I had never dealt with my own brokenness. I think we learn to band-aid ourselves quickly and avoid pain as much as possible very early on. And many of us never go back and deal with it. Shane’s voice, persona, and music somehow shined a light into those dark places and brought out an emotional response in me that I hadn’t really experienced before.

In his less-heralded (but no-less-wonderful) work, Ruthless Trust,author Brennan Manning points to St. John of the Cross’ classic Dark Night of the Soul.  (I cite Manning because I can’t wade through John.) In it, he remarks that in the early stages of our faith, we are afforded an emotional “crutch” (if you will) to bolster our faith. Over time, however, we may find that crutch removed and the question is posed by God, “do you trust ME – or just the feeling of me?” Manning suggests that in this time, the believer will find no solace in those places of old. That his heart will not be stirred by song as it once was.

This is my present burden. So, when I see that Shane – the one who once served as a place of solace – has a new record releasing, I reach out like a thirsty man in a dessert in hope of a drop of water. And time and again, the well is dry.

Like the friend from college. Shane has not changed. That is to say, we’ve both grown and gone our separate ways. We’ve both married, had a some kids, and put on a few pounds. He’s still writing the same music (though the production is way more “slick” than I would like). It’s not his fault that we don’t connect anymore. It’s not mine. It’s just the way of life.

The opening track reminds me of Mumford and Sons (which you know is not for me). “Eyes on You” reminds me of Vocal Few at the beginning for some reason (which is cool). “Without Jesus” is hokey, plain and simple. The master-work here is “You Love My Heart to Death” both on a production and theological level.

Interview :: David Menconi

David Menconi, a fellow Texas native (currently residing in North Carolina), has spent the last nearly two decades as an award winning music critic, freelance journalist, and author. Twitter brought us together over our shared love of Ryan Adams following my review of Adams’ Love is Hell record. I’ve recently been giving a lot of thought to the developments within the music industry over the last few years and figured that David might be a good person to provide bit more perspective.

Independents vs. The Industry

Ryan: David, I feel like we’re seeing the death of the indie music “scene”. I’m in Dallas. 10 or 15 years ago, this was a great place to be. Now it’s dead. It seems like, with the exception of a few places – Austin, Denver, Seattle with the likes of Macklemore and Allen Stone – there are not any real indie music hot-spots.

David: It’s not that it isn’t there, it’s just harder than ever for an artist to gain any mainstream traction. It used to be that once a month a major label would send me a CD of a new artist. Now, labels need their artists to do “tonage” to drive sales.

It’s always been a crapshoot. In reality, 9 out of 10 record deals fail – maybe more like 99 out of 100. That doesn’t have to stop anybody, though. The best records coming out right now are from people you’ve never heard of putting them out themselves. In reality, the old model that we look back on really only lasted a decade or two.

Ryan: So, who is trying to keep it alive? The old-school artists or the record labels.

David: Well, the industry really gravitates toward what it understands and they can keep moving it.

Ryan: It’s funny (and at the same time, sad), I look at an artist like Natalie Maines who has just released a fantastic record, MotherShe’s able to release it on a major label because of who she is and her connections, but she’s going to have a heck of a time finding an audience because she’s so alienated from her core audience.

David: For her, the message is going to be loud and clear, “know your place.” She doesn’t fit the mold, and as good as the record is, she’s not going to connect.

When “Reality” is Not Reality

Ryan: Let’s talk about the artists that are coming up now. We’re seeing the influx of the so-called “Gen-Y” or “Millenials” – and I’ll be honest, I’m part of that group.  They are a group known for their entitlement mentality. They’ve been raised on competition from soccer and baseball at age 4 to a slew of reality music competitions.

It feels like there’s been a death of work ethic. You’re seeing fewer and fewer artists like Lance Whalen loading up the car and grinding it out night after night in bars and clubs.

David: Hey, the false machine has always been there. There have always been “manufactured” bands. It’s just so much more efficient now. The ride up and the ride back down are so much faster.

Fewer and fewer newspapers have guys like me doing this – finding those raw artists and bringing them to the people. The mainstream media supports the machine.

Ryan: Well, they need to tap into the cultural awareness that already exists out there.

David: We’ll always have to pay attention when the Rolling Stones and U2s of the world roll through town.

Ryan: But then I look at American Idol that’s been on for what 12 years now? And they’ve struck out 9 out of those 12 times. I mean, who have they given us? Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, a few finalists like Daughtrey and Jennifer Hudson.

David: Don’t fool yourself. That’s a TV show, not a talent-finding competition. Look at what gets the most attention: the trainwrecks that they show during the audition process – the William Hungs.

The thing about shows like American Idol is that they just strip-mine culture. It’s one of the few things that the industry can hang on to and it gets more attention than it deserves…

The Impact of Technology

Ryan:So, with the proliferation of technology, does it seem  like musicians no longer feel the need to grind it out night after night? Why play in front of crowd of 100 when you can put something on YouTube that gets seen by 10s of thousands? And is this why we’re so overloaded with crappy product – because any jackwagon with a Mac can “produce” an album?

David: I don’t feel like the people have changed. There are just more efficient ways now to make stuff up, steal shit, get in trouble. Plenty of people are still doing it the old way, they may just be changing up the venues a bit. A band may play a club one night and in someone’s living room the next. The “system” is becoming more and more decentralized.

Of course, the flip-side is also worth considering – that is, the audience is changing. There are now infinite options for how to spend your disposable income and even at that would you rather spend money to go see a band or just watch something on the computer in your dorm.

An artist has to make it so compelling that you can’t stay away. I think that Amanda Palmer has been a great example of this. She’s doing things that make her shows more than a performance – they’re performance art, they’re an experience. As a band, you can’t just show up and play and expect people to show up.

Ryan: The thing about Amanda Palmer and so many like her is their ability to utilize technology to build a fan-base. These “long tail” artists are out there cultivating a community through direct connections brought about by social media. It’s things like this, that allow them to forgo their need for a record label. The thing is – while they may be posting regularly – I don’t see artists like Bon Jovi utilizing these tools in the same way.

David: The difference with someone like Bon Jovi is that social media is a luxury, whereas for these other artists, it’s a means of survival. With millions of fans, you can’t connect with even a portion of them and even if you did, you would probably be totally unrelatable. Part of that is generational and part of it is the size of the audience.

The Future

Ryan: Let’s project out into the future for a minute. You’ve got a guy like Macklemore who represents this entire shift. A guy who was respected within his niche-within-a-niche, but mostly unknown, rising to the extreme height of fame. What’s next for him and for others who are on that same wave?

David: Look, the media landscape is voracious and the there’s a steady stream of new content. The question will be, “how long will he (or anyone else, for that matter) manage to linger?” Look at a guy like Johnny Depp, 20 years ago he was seen as a teen idol. He was nothing more than just one of those guys. Now he’s regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation.

Ryan: So, maybe things haven’t really changed that much we’re just able to see more of what’s happening on the way up beyond just our little local scene. The globalization that technology has created has allowed us to discover artists that we never would have heard of otherwise and we’re realizing that the “overnight success” stories really aren’t overnight. They never were, but we were more at the mercy of the record industry to point them out. Now we can discover them for ourselves.

David: It’s like, there’s a guy from here in North Carolina named Tokyo Rosenthal. He’s basically unknown here, but he’s had some big hits in Europe and received special honors at a ceremony in the town of Killaloe, Ireland.

People still need “filters” to help them find new music, the old model is just no longer trusted.

Ryan: And what I also hear you saying is that there’s really no difference between artist then and now, people are just using (and always have) the tools that are at their disposal. At the end of the day, in order to succeed, it seems like you just have to be “all in” on your own success.

David: For sure. No one will care about you or your career as much as you do – and that’s true in any industry. And I think that artists are finally abandoning the myth that the label will just make it happen.

Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskey Town

Ryan: You’ve got a book out which you’ve described as “The official, unauthorized biography of Ryan Adams.”

David: Yes, it came out last fall and I’m very excited about it. In fact, just this week it was recognized by the Hoffer Awards for independent publishing. The best source for more info on the book is the Loserblog.

Ryan: Where else can we find you?

David: Links to most all of my doings are on my website. I also do a music blog for the newspaper. Finally, the dark dirty underside of the music biz has long fascinated me, and provided ample material for a novel I wrote a long, long time ago called Off the Record.

Much thanks to David for taking the time to chat with me. He definitely removed some of my cynicism that I had toward the artists and put things into a better perspective. If you get a chance, take some time to look him up and see what he’s doing. As he mentioned, there are fewer and fewer media outlets employing guys like him these days.

Lance Whalen: Sweet Sugar Pie

Release Date: May 10, 2013

This record is so good. If you haven’t read my feature article introducing you to Lance Whalen yet, please do so. I absolutely love what he’s doing as an artist. He’s also been very engaging and very intriguing to get to know. I’m very excited to get to share his music with you.

In talking with Lance about the his new EP, Sweet Sugar Pie, he shared how he really wanted this record to reflect the live experience and that his previous work had failed to capture that. Of course, you know this frustration: go to the concert, or your at the club/bar already, you like what you’re hearing so you decide to pick up the record, you get out to the car and pop it in and say “who the heck is this guy?” (Jason Mraz, I’m looking at you.) So, I can definitely appreciate a guy who wants to bring that experience home on the record.

Unfortunately for Whalen, he didn’t receive the best feedback and was encouraged to not release these recordings. As he says “none of ‘my people’ thought it was a good idea. But I just had to do it.”

What The Hell Was I Thinking: from the artist, “track one was recorded while on tour in a basement in Connecticut… at 3am with musicians who had never played with each other before. it is entirely live.” The live sound absolutely comes through in the driving rhythms and harried vocals. This is an instance where the Tom Waits vocal style really shines.

Best I Can: Lance told me that in the interim between his last album and releasing this EP, he has been doing some work for film and television. This song arose out of one of those assignments to work with a given prompt and deliver a finished product on a very short timeline. The doubled vocals, he says, were not the initial plan, but the original, live vocals needed work. I love the interplay between the original track and the overdub.

Sweet Sugar Pie: To me, this song is just heart-wrenching. I honestly want to cry when I hear it. The emotion comes through in every single note. Lyrically, it reminds me a lot of Pearl Jam’s “Dissident.” I hear the story of an outlaw on the run who is letting his guard down just for one night. He may realize that the end is near and is dreaming of a different life.

The experience is bolstered by the reality of the performance: from the artist, “I was in a car accident on the interstate while  on the way to this million dollar studio where people like Taylor Swift and Alison Krauss have recorded…  I showed up,  recorded the song in one take and then called a friend to take me to the emergency room.”

The Way You Love Me: I haven’t connected with this track as much as I have with the others. To be fair, though, he would be hard-pressed to follow the title-track with anything. I think this one really captures that Nick Cave essence the best. I like it. It’s wonderfully melodic and the production is a welcomed change from the sparseness of the other tracks. I think that the lyrics are a little ambiguous and maybe that’s what’s kept me at a slight distance from this one.

Now, 99% of the time, if it’s available on Amazon, I’m going to suggest that you purchase it there because I’m a huge advocate for their digital music prices and customer service. But when you’ve got an artist like this grinding it out night after night in bars and clubs, I want to make sure we treat him right. With that in mind, I encourage you to purchase this directly from his website.

Essential Playlist :: Eisley

I first heard Eisley before they were signed and I picked up their home-burned, hand-stamped “Moss Eisley: EP 1 and 2“. Since those old out of print records are not available on Spotify, I pulled up some of their early singles that featured those songs as B-Sides. Of their 3 LPs thus far, I definitely lean more heavily toward Room Noises and The Valley. I’ve just never really connected with Combinations (their sophomore release). I’ll address this all in more depth in forth-coming reviews.

The Dream World of Eisley

the valley

1. “The Valley”, The Valley (Deluxe Edition) – The first 20 seconds of this track are so great. The whole thing is, but I just love the way it kicks off the record.

room noises

2. “Telescope Eyes”, Room Noises – I still have a problem with the lyric being changed from “you, you freak” to “you, you see“, but this is a classic track.


3. “Currents”, Currents – This is the first single from the as-yet-unreleased album, so I’m still getting to know it. The acoustic guitar is a nice choice.


4. “Come Clean”, Combinations – Really only one of the two songs that I dig on this album. This one has grown on me over time.

the valley

5. “Better Love”, The Valley (Deluxe Edition) – I hadn’t paid much attention to this song until I saw an acoustic video of it.


6. “Head Against the Sky”, Head Against the Sky (single) – This is one of those songs from the indie EPs that didn’t make the first record. This version is over-produced but up until The Valley released, it was my favorite song from the band.


7. “I Wasn’t Prepared”, Marvelous Things (EP) – This was the first track on the first official recording by the band. I wasn’t prepared for it, but it has become a favorite.

the valley

8. “Smarter” (acoustic), The Valley (Deluxe Edition) – Geez. The Valley. So good. I like the acoustic version because the lyric is strong, but fragile and this showcases the fragility in a hauntingly, heartbreaking way.


9. “Go Away”, Combinations – It’s the other song I like on this record.

room noises

10. “Golly Sandra”, Room Noises – A live favorite that finally got to be heard by the masses. Something of a unique sound for the band.


11. “Ambulance”, Fire Kite (EP) – This is really more of a demo than a fully produced version. I’m choosing this version over the studio and “acoustic” versions from The Valley because it is so sparse. I could write 600 words on this one song, so I’ll save it for my review of The Valley.

the valley

12. “Mr. Moon”, The Valley (Deluxe Edition) – This record is so great that it became easy to overlook some of the tracks. Eternally grateful to Dan for pointing me to it. I put it in behind “Ambulance” because I think they represent a complete thought.

deep space

13. “Laugh it Off”, Deep Space (EP) – I didn’t like this EP, but it felt like it was needed in light of the weightiness of The Valley.


14. “Mr. Pine”, live at the Troubadour, Head Against the Sky (EP) – This is another indie EP fave. The recording is pretty awful, though. I love how Stacy and Sherri share verse vocals and the interplay they have during the chorus and outro/bridge.

room noises

15. “Trolleywood”, Room Noises – If memory serves, this was the go-to concert-closer in the early days. It’s a type of whimsy that belied their youth and possibly even naivete.

Natalie Maines: Mother

Release Date: May 7,2013

Confession: I like the Dixie Chicks. Not the mainstream stuff that garnered them all their airplay, but some of the deeper tracks and less successful singles off the albums. Songs like “Cold Day in July”, “You Were Mine”, and “Fly” are the real heroes of their collection. Unfortunately, things got too hot in the kitchen and, while they didn’t officially call it quits, they’ve kept things to a fairly low profile over the last few years.

Back in 2010, the sisters, Marty Maguire and Emily Robison released an album under the moniker of “Court Yard Hounds“. I bought it when it released but have never been too impressed with it. It charted well upon it’s release due to the existing love for the Chicks, but as far as I know, no one is clamoring for a follow-up. What that record did, however, was leave us all longing for a Natalie Maines solo album. Well, friends… it’s finally here.

When I put this record on, it was immediately like a cool drink of water in a desert. Some vocalists just have that transcendent quality to their voice that  puts you at ease. I was honestly surprised by my reaction – I didn’t realize how much I had missed that sound. Musically, the tone is toward that heavier end Dixie Chicks catalog, but I won’t go so far as to agree with the artist that it is a “rock” record.

[Aside: Alright, let’s push pause. I know that I’ve stirred up a little controversy in the past by discussing a foreign artist who said some derogatory things about America. So, I can only assume that the same vitriol exists toward Ms. Maines. She is certainly a “speak before thinking” kind of individual. Of course, her words are certainly born out of her convictions, so you can’t really get her off the hook there. So, I’ll say again – as I always do – I don’t let that kind of stuff get in the way of me enjoying someone’s music. To each their own, if it bothers you, I understand that, I hope you’ll jump back in next time. Thanks for reading.]

A large portion of this record is cover songs. Maybe it will hurt my credibility, but I didn’t know a single one of them prior to hearing them here. That said, the selections are perfectly chosen for the artist and she does a great job of making them her own. Producer Ben Harper does a great job of bringing the collection together without infusing too much of his own personality into it. I think that we all knew that the sisters were the musical talent of the Dixie Chicks, but Maines was always the star. She’s done a good job here of surrounding herself with the right people that allow her to do what she does best without exposing her weaknesses.

The album opens with a track by Maines’ good friend and Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder. Here, “Without You” finds a sense of urgency that it lacked on Vedder’s Ukelele Songs thanks to strong production and instrumentation. The Pink Floyd cover and album title track, Mother is a big win. This slow-burner paints a picture of challenging and contesting an oppressive authority figure – it’s an idea that feels tailor-made for Maines.

The lost Patty Griffin track, “Silver Bell”, is a full on country rocker that brings to mind those biggest Dixie Chicks hits. If there’s a spot where Maines fails to outshine her source material, it is when covering Jeff Beck‘s “Lover You Should’ve Come Over.” Remaining tracks lean heavily on the songwriting of producer Harper. There’s also an unrecorded Chicks song, “Come Cryin’ to Me.”

All in all, it’s one of the best records I’ve heard this year. Maines has delivered in a far better way than her former partners. The difficult thing for her will be finding an audience. All but disavowed by her former faithful followers, I feel she’ll have a hard time finding a connecting point with a more northern audience who may identify more with her perspective.

At the end of the day, a greatest hits, shut up and sing, reunion tour should be expected from the Chicks within the next two years. Probably a critically-acclaimed but poorly received reunion record by 2017. And maybe another Maines solo effort by the end of the decade. The unfortunate effects of some foolish words a decade ago and the fickle nature of the listener.

Interview :: Lance Whalen

Sometimes, when you’re not even looking for it, greatness finds you. Such is the case with how I met Lance Whalen. Why explain it, when I can just show it to you (below).


Surprised by this brief conversation, I looked at Lance’s Twitter profile where I found his website. He has a few songs posted there that you can stream or download, so I gave it a listen and I was blown away. The growl of Tom Waits, the darkness of Nick Cave, and the heart of Johnny Cash all rolled into one. It’s a sound that Whalen very accurately describes as Americana Noir.

Lance and I traded a few tweets and he sent me his new EP, Sweet Sugar Pie, to review (record and review are both coming out Friday). Since I figured none of my readers would know who he is, I wanted to dig a little deeper and I’m honored that he would allow me the opportunity. While I wanted to present this as an interview, some technical difficulties are forcing me to simply share his story as he related it to me.

The Man:

Lance began his musical journey as a high school student in Kentucky. Listening to music that he connected with helped him feel less alone and writing his own music offered a much needed channel for expressing himself. After suffering through the demise of several failed bands, Whalen came to the realization that he was simply meant to be a solo artist.

Discontent began to build following series of life-changing events including his being diagnosed with a heart condition that would warrant having a pacemaker put in and his fiance’s untimely death. This coupled with the growing awareness that he was only half committed to his art with one foot in his own life and one foot in the life that everyone wanted for him. This “series of straws” finally broke the camel’s back with Lance declaring “I’m not going to die here.” So in 2004, he loaded up his gear and took the plunge by moving to Nashville.


Still based in Nashville, Whalen plays a lot of the local clubs, but also finds himself spending a lot of time on the road. He admits that it’s a tough place to live, but he’s enjoyed seeing it develop and grow over the years.

His Music:

On his new EP, Lance has really perfected the sound that he’s spent more than a decade developing. Referring to his earliest work, he muses that the trouble with music is that once you put something out, you can never get it back. He states that if he could, he would gather up many of his early releases and destroy them before anyone could hear it.

One of the keys to the authenticity on this record, Whalen suggests, is the support of his producer John Simpson (who also produced his last full length record). By having a trusted partner in the process, Lance was able to focus more on the strengths of his songwriting and performance, rather that trying to do everything himself.

That added focus comes through clearly on the record as it shows that he has really established his own voice. When asked if there are any artists that he emulates or admires, he says that he used to try to emulate Elvis, the greatest voice in rock n roll. When he realized that he didn’t have the ability to do that, then he wanted to find a sound that he could really thrive in. As mentioned before, the comparison to Nick Cave fairly jumps off the record, especially once you’ve gotten a look at Whalen. He states that Cave is not only a songwriter he really identifies with, he’s also very inspired by Cave’s longevity and ability to continue putting out great records.

When asked about comparisons to Tom Waits, he acknowledges that it is there, but feels moreso that both he and Waits were inspired by the work of Captain Beefheart. (I’ll be honest, I had to look that one up, but he appears to be fairly influential and did in fact spark a major shift for Tom Waits.) Also of Waits, Lance says, “he’s probably the only artist I’ve ever fallen out of love with,” citing the overly predictable nature of his recent work.


What’s Next:

Lance Whalen is definitely an old soul with an old school work ethic and process. (In a way, his unique style forces him to be.) He’s not looking to stand in line for 48 hours to appear on the next season of The Voice. Instead, he’s grinding it out on stages across the country. As he says, “it’s all about gaining one fan at a time.” That’s why he would rather play for 15 really engaged people at a hole in the wall in a small town than 100 dis-interested people at bigger venue.


His EP releases on May10 (stay tuned here because you’ll have a chance to win a copy of it on Thursday). After that, he’ll be setting off on the road to Canada and back to play 32 shows in 30 days. I’m trying to talk him into adding a Texas date as soon as he can.

find Lance online

Twitter | Facebook | Website | Store


Artist of the Month :: Eisley

Fall 2002. I travel to Dallas to hear a band that I’m scouting play a show – I think it was around Thanksgiving. When I get to the venue, I meet my guys and I look over to the merch table to see a bunch of young girls hanging out. Cool, one of the band brought their kid sisters to see t-shirts. My band plays a great set complete with a much loved guitar-behind-the-head maneuver and I retire to the adjacent coffee shop to catch up with some old friends.

Eventually, I decide it’s time to go home. I walk back into the main hall of the venue to find a bunch of statues staring at the stage, many a jaw upon the floor. Then I hear it. Mesmerizing, ethereal, hauntingly melodic sounds coming from the speakers. I look up to find the aforementioned kid sisters destroying everyone in the audience with their Radiohead meets Sixpence NTR meets Coldplay brand of melodic rock. I join the gape-mouthed statues for the remainder of the set.

So was my introduction to the band (Moss) Eisley.

circa 2002 copyright Alison V Smith

The band, comprised of sibling Chauntelle, Sherri, Weston, and Stacy Dupree was originally accompanied by a family friend and later replaced by cousin Garron Dupree on bass. Since that change, the group has experienced lots of personal changes (marriages, divorce, re-marriage, parenthood) but no personnel changes. With a new album (Currents) set to release at the end of this month, the band shows no signs of stopping. In fact, they have a Kickstarter going right now to help offset the costs of a world tour – a far more daunting task with spouses and newborn babies in tow.

I’ll be exploring the band’s discography over the course of this month leading up to the release of the new album.

circa 2012