Ryan Catbird, the mogul behind Catbird Records, has always committed to designing a roster that is never quite kosher, always slightly skewed and maintains the sweetest bit of pop sensibility (no matter the scope of twee within). Forest Fire’s urban folkie Mark Thresher started as the quirky Bowery busking songman—right there in line with the label’s aesthete. His Psychic Star EP was a quick fix of intimate in-jokes, plucked from late-night warbling, and now his first LP, Survival, is progression, even if it is towards a perceived and worshipped cosmic Americana.
Inviting in friends from across the country to his cluttered Brooklyn apartment (seen on the cover), he’s managed to cook up what sounds like a feverish daydream that creeps and crawls around in detritus of country—pedal steels and twanged choruses—and the gritty scorch of the desert—with distant howls and blinding sunbeams. The city, though, keeps his songs grounded and honest, after all there’s a ceiling overhead. “Fortune Teller” is a testament to things getting trapped in small spaces on the third floor and never quite getting the wings to float out the window. It’s inherently pop, only scrapped with closet distortion, slurred with lyrics like “Why can’t I kill someone I hate?” and musty with slacker vision. Later Thresher quips “I’m living for what’s on my mind,” and the way his muse leads him through the pastoral to the haunted-pastoral and back into the alleyways of his neighborhood, you’ve got to believe he’s got one hell of an imagination, even when it’s laid bare.
In typical Catbird fashion, this can be had for cheap, and in an effort to get people listening, Survival can be had for free. Go here for your own copy.
Kevin J. Elliott
Jay Reatard: the modern king of singles. Could it even be disputed? Here we are in the midst of his fine run of singles to be compiled for his Matador debut, and In the Red comes and collects, on Singles 06-07 (a bit of a misleading title, as some of this came out in ‘08), everything Jay’s done between the Blood Visions LP and the Matador stuff. So let’s see, that’s the two Goner singles (“I Know A Place” and “Hammer I Miss You”), the Night of Broken Glass EP on In the Red, his cut (“Let It All Go”) from the Boston Chinks split, the “In the Dark” 7-inch (that also doubled as a super-limited 5-inch) on the German Squoodge label, and the Blood Demo EP from Australian label Stained Circles. Most of this is of the highest quality, and all of it is out of print.
The collection is compiled chronologically, and the quality begins to dip as Reatard begins to save his better material for the Matador singles, tossing off lower-quality stuff to labels he surely promised a single to years ago. That said, he’d never pass along second-rate tracks to In the Red or Goner, the two labels that have nurtured Reatard into the punk hero he is today. These are some of the best songs of his career as they mark an important step towards a more playful direction, moving away from cold, dark punk towards a multi-tiered pop machine. The organ on “Another Person” may have jarred some ears used to hearing Reatard’s voice above icy synth lines, but it was the jangly acoustic guitars and romantic lyrics of “I Know a Place” that really sent reverberations amongst the punk purists, letting the world know that Reatard wasn’t going to just sit comfortably in the throne he fashioned for himself. Its B-side, “Don’t Let Him Come Back,” even nods to the mod and beat groups of the ‘60s. “Let It All Go” dazzles with endless hooks and a fuzzed guitar lead, a song that could rival the better XTC moments for its unabashed catchiness.
There are still plenty of traditional Reatard cuts offered, though they are of demo-quality. The Blood Demo tracks offer a more skeletal version of four songs from the LP, and while some may prefer these raw versions, I can’t find any reason why these were released at all. The three tracks from “In The Dark” fare better, but are inessential when butted against the cuts directly preceding it. What everyone will be coming back to is the stuff that came directly after Blood Visions, where, remarkably, Jay broadened his scope without sacrificing a morsel of his credibility. We can only hope that he can do the same with his next great leap.
After a handful of self-released discs, the Woodbox Gang make their debut on Jefflo Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label. Hailing from Vulture Valley, a little hollow (or holler, as they say in some parts) in Southern Illinois, the band combines a good helping of country traditionalism with astute depictions of backwoods debauchery and black humor. It might all just amount to a lot hokey yukking were this group of banjo-picking, mandolin-strumming, guitar-playing, didgeridoo-doing hombres not so adept at plying their trade.
Originally released as a ten-track, tour-only CD, Drunk As Dragons has been “fortified” with another eight re-recorded cuts from the band’s back catalog. There’s nary a clunker in the bunch. “Tough Guy Blues” is ragged rager whetted along slide guitar lines and lyrics like “I got a hangover, but I never got rid of it.” “Never Kissed a Girl,” which with lines such as “I got a new lover and he don’t like roses. He likes candy bars and cigarettes” is the funniest of the bunch, is a timeless stitching of sing-a-long choruses, washboard rhythms and dobro resonance. But the album is not all laughs. “Dusty, Dozer & Grandpa” is a simple, mountain reverie on life and death, and man and his best friend. Meanwhile, “Bad Veins,” a bum’s lament on his doctor’s prognosis, brings together the distant sounds of Americana and dub and makes it work so much better than a million reggae covers of “Country Roads.”
Throughout the record, the Gang casts a skeptical eye on religious fanaticism, romanticizes the bottle and generally takes the piss out of the rednecks of the world. Not that they ever distance themselves too much, though; one gets the feeling that they are all too familiar with the themes about which they sing, and it’s this intimacy that makes the record ring true.
Best known for backing Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis on her solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, Chandra and Leigh Watson have stepped to the front of the stage for their first full-length, Fire Songs.
The Watson sisters, who are identical twins like Kim and Kelley Deal, Teagan and Sara and those guys from the Proclaimers, traffic in a slow-key brand of country-infused rock. The record could fit comfortably into the “alt-country” bin simply due to the occasional appearance of a slide guitar and the phrasing of the Twins’ vocals. Wisely, though, the Twins bring a bit more to the sonic stew, adding playful xylophone and a pop touch to the opening track “How Am I To Be” and some zippy horns to “Map To Where You Are.” At its heart, Fire Songs is simply that: a collection of songs to be sung on a backporch or around a campfire.
Where Fire Songs falls short, however, is that lyrically no song is truly memorable. There may be nothing truly cringe-worthy, but there’s also nothing that will make an IM away message. The songs are engaging while they’re playing, but the minute they end it’s a struggle to remember the choruses. If the Watsons could manage to pair their talent for making great sounding songs with stronger songwriting they?d be unstoppable. This is evident on their cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” Somehow they took a song that has been beat to death by ‘80s Night deejays across the country and made it seem like a brand new song.
So too are the Twins’ vocals both the highlight and the downfall of the record. There are some gorgeous moments, such as the jazzy Doris Day-ish lead vocal on “Only You” and in the effortless harmonizing which is the Twins’ calling card. However, the Watsons have such similar voices and vocal mannerisms you never get a sense of the individuals, only the Watson Twins as a singular beast.While the Watson Twins’ Fire Songs falls short of adding songs to the camping cannon, there’s no doubting their vocal talents. It’s just that this time out the fire is mainly just smoldering embers.