Media Diet and Rambling Thoughts

Huffington Post is still promoting the missing plane mystery as their headline.  How many days will this go on?!!!  I bet the cable news is having a field day with that too, though I don’t know for certain, as I don’t watch that shit!

I’ve been going on a media diet in recent years.  I cut out cable TV and I cut out radio.  These are two outdated forms that offer little if any value to one’s life.  When I listen or watch one of these formats I almost start believing my conspiracy theory friends that the media is manipulating us to make us dumber.  Songs riddled with clichés and Ken and Barbie dolls reading Teleprompters are running ramped over a demoralized public.

Did you see the singer form Hootie and the Blowfish has a country career now?  Who buys that stuff?  Who bought his Blowfish albums?  Kevin Russell calls this stuff golf rock.  Did anyone notice how metrosexual a lot of the male country stars are now?  I find that funny as their base is partially composed of redneck males who think they are tougher than the rest and are often homophobic.

I wish Hunter Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin were still alive.  They were of the rarified few that knew how to expose the great contradictions in our society.  This is an absurd country in many ways.  Our comedians have become our truth tellers and our newscasters have become our mindless entertainers.  Remember in a capitalist democracy we vote with our dollar a good deal of the time.  Support those things that bring value to your life and cut out on the fat!

The Making of A Manual for Defeat: Part 1

No Show Ponies new album, A Manual for Defeat, will be released tomorrow exclusively through www.noshowponies.com.  This is an album that was forged out of necessity.  That is both the necessity of expression and the necessity of circumstances that lead to the way this album was made.  This is a rock album about hard times, which was made by and for people that are going through them. 

My brother Ben and I moved to Austin about 8 years ago from Central Pennsylvania.  Although we had always played rock music, we started out in the Austin scene as an acoustic duo.  We slowly climbed up the Austin ladder, found band mates, and recorded the album The End of Feel Good Music.  We recorded that album with Kevin Russell and Keith Langford of Shinyribs and the Gourds.  We had cameos by such Austin luminaries as Jon Dee Graham and Jimmy Smith of the Gourds.  We had a successful CD release party and then a residency at the Saxon Pub.  Everything seemed to be going right, but then as often happens, trouble found us.  Our live band imploded. 

Suddenly we found ourselves without a steady band.  Although Ben and I never quit working, we found that we were lacking a distinct sound and direction.  Out of the blue, or possibly through an internet ad, the drummer Alex Morales walked into our lives.  He is a drummer with an encyclopedic knowledge of drumming.  His apartment looks like a drum museum.  He not only could play whatever crazy idea we had in our heads, but also could inspire us and push us in new directions.  He is the perfect drummer for the songs Ben and I write.  He has rock solid timing, a deep pocket, and more importantly he intuitively understands the kind of music we play, shares many key influences, and writes unique and distinctive parts for each song.  A band is only as good as their drummer and suddenly we had a great one. 

However, we were still lacking a distinctive sound.  I was on bass at the time and Ben was on acoustic.  At one practice, when Ben and I found ourselves alone with Alex, Ben decided to pick up the electric guitar.  All of a sudden, in about three songs, that sound that we were always looking for, but weren’t sure where to find it, came to life right in front of us.  My brother could jump with ease from beautiful chimy arpeggiations to blood thirsty noise solos.  We decided right then and there that we would remain a three piece.  We were limited in what we could do, but as often the case in art, limitation is the mother of invention.  While we always believed we could write and sing together, we suddenly, for the first time in a long time, had a “sound”. 

The next step that we knew we had to make was recording an album.  We asked each other how we could make a record that would do justice to the sound that we were hearing for the budget we had.  And the truth of the matter is that we had no budget.  The Great Recession had come through like a hurricane and wiped out whatever financial stability that we had.  Luckily I had the experience of recording with Ramsay Midwood on his quarter inch tape machine.  Shinyribs had recorded a song called Dollar Bill Blues for an English Townes Van Zandt tribute record.  In one day of working we had the song recorded, mixed, and ready for action.  There wasn’t the fussing about that plagues most recording sessions.  Most importantly the recording we did had a vibrancy and life that is missing in most modern recordings. 

I knew that if we had any chance of making a good record for a nonexistent budget, then this is the route that we had to go.  If we were well rehearsed we could knock out basic tracks within a couple days and end up with something we believed in.  For the next several months Ben, Al, and myself rehearsed like mad.  We got every song that we had into a definitive three piece arrangement.  Anything that didn’t work with only three instruments was thrown out the window. 

When it came time to record we picked the best songs we had given the arrangements that we had.  We also had our eye on the whole and picked songs whose meanings would be enhanced by the songs around them.  We wanted to make an album and not just a collection of songs.  Once we had the material where we wanted it, we contacted Ramsay, who picked engineer Seth Gibbs, and headed out for his house, where the first batch of songs were to be recorded…

To Be Continued…

The Day that Leadbelly Died

I was sent this today by David K. Langford.  Mr. Langford has just put out the amazing book Hillingdon Ranch: Four Seasons, Six Generations.  I saw it before it was released and the photography is simply stunning.  It’s about his family’s ranch and why land stewardship matters. 
Here is the link to the book: 

http://hillingdonranchbook.com/hillingdon-ranch-book/authors/david-k-langford/

Anyway, here is the information that he sent me:

December 6 … On this day in 1949, blues pioneer Huddie Ledbetter, popularly known as “Leadbelly,” died in New York City. Born in 1888, the son of a black sharecropper, Leadbelly grew up in Louisiana and East Texas before striking out on his own in 1901 to live the life of a musician. He eventually made his way to Dallas, where he met songster Blind Lemon Jefferson playing on the streets of Deep Ellum, the town’s notorious black district. In 1918 Leadbelly was sentenced to thirty years in the Texas penitentiary for murder, but Gov. Pat Neff pardoned him in 1925 after the blues player wrote a song in his honor. In 1930, however, Leadbelly was imprisoned again, this time in Angola, Louisiana, on an assault charge. It was here where pioneer recording archivists John Avery Lomax and his son Alan discovered the blues guitarist and recorded his songs for posterity. Leadbelly was soon released as a result of their appeals and eventually toured the country, thus bringing his work songs and spirituals to a wider audience and influencing new generations of songwriters and guitarists. In 1988 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I did not know it was the day that Leadbelly died.  Kevin Russell has gotten me into Leadbelly in the last several years.  I am particularly fond of the version he does of John Henry that is accompanied by accordion.  It sounds primal and ancient, like music from another world, full of mystery.

Holes

I’ve been meaning to tackle this topic for awhile.  If you have even a slightly agile mind, and I would put my mind somewhere dead center between the cretin Sarah Palin and the genius of Albert Einstein, roughly at the top of the bell curve, you are bound to see holes in arguments and strains of thought.  Whenever I read something I wrote I am often struck with the thought of, “Jesus I hope no one thinks of that!”  I have written things that make me cringe when reading over them.  However, I always know that at the time I wrote something I was as close to the truth of a subject as I could get given my momentary feeling.

I try to write as fast as possible, on pure inspiration.  I view the entries of this blog as outward looking diary entries.  I want to write as little about me, and as much as what I see going on in the culture as humanly possible.  I believe if you write about current events and other goings on with as much inspiration as possible, you will occasionally be dead wrong, but you will also occasionally touch on a truth that ponderous thinking will miss.  Sometimes if you think too much you may become a coward and except whatever the consensus is on a given topic.  There are other forms of writing that should examine the long game.  When writing a blog one should ponder as much while they are not writing, but leave conscious thinking at the door once your fingers start typing.  Blogging is a transitory form of writing.  One is not crafting a book or a scholarly article, unless your blog is actually set up as a place for scholarly arguments.

One of my favorite writers is George Orwell.  I once read, and I cannot for the life of me remember the source, that he was such a good writer that even when he was contradicting himself you tended to believe him.  I would not dare to ever think of putting myself in same sentence as George Orwell. (Although it appears I just did it without trying.)  He is the best of the best.  My point is that even the best of writers leave holes and spaces where their words don’t add up if you pay enough attention.

I have ridden a lot in the van with Kevin Russell.  He has the kind of mind that can pick apart and challenge an argument, even if he doesn’t believe in what he is saying.  He is great at playing devil’s advocate.  My own brother, Ben Brown, is also able to point out faults in my way of thinking with much consternation on my end.  It is good to have people around you that don’t simply parrot your thoughts.  When someone challenges what you think it will lead to either one of two outcomes:  It will possibly both sharpen your beliefs and make you hunker down, strengthening your position with more articulate expression.  Or you will realize that your way of thinking was wrong and it will send you back to the drawing board.  Both outcomes are positive.

But to get back to my original topic, even the best of writers are never dead on all the time.  A piece of writing should be viewed as something that starts a conversation, but does not end it.  You must dance and parry with writing.  Writing is a powerful thing that can shape your beliefs and make you see the world in a different way.  However, one should always read with a critical eye, realizing that a writer is always influenced by their unique time and place.  All writers are biased, even ones that claim not to be.  Given a writer’s particular bias, which may be large or small, do their words still ring true?  No one has written the Holy Bible.  In fact that book, which so many people take on complete faith, is littered with holes of reason, contradictions, and flights of fancy.  But that, shall we say, is another story…

Last Gourds Show Review

I attended what was possibly the last Gourds’ show last night.  They are deeming it a hiatus and not a breakup.  If that was indeed their last show it was a hell of a way to go out.  Those of you that have been reading my blog all along have noticed an uptick in Monty Python references.  I have been reading a book on the Pythons.  I grew up on them and I am having a personal resurgence of their influence upon my life.  However, what I am about to say I believe to be absolutely true.

So help me god last night was the closest I have ever seen to rock n roll merging itself to the surreal comedic aspects of Monty Python.  The Gourds achieved some kind of strange performance art milestone last night.  I am sure of it.  If the live stream goes up online again, it may well be now, then watch the last half hour of it.  This was living breathing surrealism that was also emotional, passionate, and well executed.  I feel like they touched, for a moment anyway, some weird 4th dimension.

I may be slightly making it sound like it was a shit show, but it was also rock n roll of the highest fucking order.  Kevin was hitting insanely powerful high notes, even for him, Jimmy was playing bass like he was burning down a barn, Max did the best banjo solo I have ever seen live, Claude switched between instruments with ease and brought life to every one of them, and Keith simply put in a tour de force performance.

I would like to write more, but I actually have real work to do today.  My brain may also be slightly clouded by the substances I either did or did not consume last night.  But if you want to get a crash course in amazing independent rock n roll, then watch this show somehow someway online.

There are moments, primarily in the work of great directors like David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Nicholas Winding Refn, and Werner Herzog, where you realize you are witnessing some kind of hidden truth of the universe that you realize is true, but even in witnessing it you can’t quite put your finger on what it is.  You are touched, for a brief moment, by the Divine.  It only lasts a little while before human imperfection closes the door.  Last night there were several of those moments.  I was glad to be alive in Austin, Texas on October 27th, 2013.

Well, I need to get back to the grindstone.  Not quite as glad to be alive on the 28th.  These ups and downs in life can take some getting used to…

Again, I know and have worked with the Gourds, so I feel I need to disclose that.  If you think you that is going to make me write something I don’t believe in, then in the word’s of GNR, “You’re fucking crazy.”  

The Gourds

The Gourds are not only THE great Austin band, but also one of the great American bands, of their or any other generation.  The fact that they have not been included in this pantheon by the mainstream music press is a glaring omission.  I would like to theorize why this omission is so, and to argue for why it should be corrected.

First I would like to state why I find it so easy to dub them the greatest, and most representative, band to emerge from Austin.  The Austin music scene is an amalgamation of different music styles, but the essential character of Austin music is music that is at least partially rooted in the deep currents of American traditional music.  That is not to say that the Austin of today doesn’t feature punk, electronic, indie rock, and any other kind of music that is out there.  However, when one thinks of the tradition of Austin, one most likely thinks of the combination of 60’s rock combined with country and other traditional American musical forms.  The Gourds have explored this combination probably more thoroughly and more consistently than anyone.  They have done this across ten studio albums and several soundtracks.  All of these records are valid artistic statements that have their own moments to recommend them.  One may prefer one period over another, but I don’t think one can be honest and say that any of these records lack merits.

I think it should be noted that the Gourds made records that were documents, in the same way that Bob Dylan made records as documents.  Although there are few experimental sonic moments on Gourds records, Dyin’ Diamond comes to mind, most of their records represent what the band actually sounded like playing together at any bend in the road.  This is the opposite of the Beatles approach during their Sergeant Pepper period, where the studio was used as an instrument in and of itself.  A contemporary that used this more sonically experimental approach, and gained a good deal of success from it, would be Wilco and their Yankee Foxtrot Hotel album.  This is not to say that one approach is better than the other.  Bands that are able to document their actual live sound without using any tricks or modern production techniques, which are always in danger of dating, will always sound timeless.  However, I think in this age of technology this has always put the Gourds at a commercial disadvantage.

I think the Gourds have always been at a disadvantage commercially as well because they are so fearless in their exploration of various styles.  We live in the age of the brand, and it is hard to brand the Gourds music as anything other than Gourdian.  I think one of the things that makes them such a unique and great band, is that despite exploring an endless number of styles, their personality always comes through.  You would never mistake a Gourds song, whether it be country, folk, or rock, as anyone else.

The Gourds also deal lyrically with a great deal of surrealism.  Surrealism is a great tradition in American art of all kind.  One thinks immediately of the directors David Lynch and Terry Gilliam, and the painters that formed the American surrealist movement of the 20th century.  However, even though this has been a thread in American culture, many Americans seem threatened by surrealism in a way that our European counterparts do not.  I believe that this is another reason that many people, that should otherwise like the Gourds, have been a bit confounded when approaching their music.

Some of what I am saying might make the Gourds sound like an elitist band, when nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact what has made their ride so interesting is the combination of high brow and low brow art.  For all the intelligence in this band, live they are a band that can make the spirit move you.  I have never seen a Gourds show where people weren’t dancing and just plain out having fun.  While there is indeed a current of art and intelligence in their work, there is another current always running along side it that is a celebration of life that is neither sentimental nor condescending.  I have seen some serious partying going on at Gourds’ shows.

In my mind there are basically three great American rock bands from the Gourds generation.  They are Wilco, Marah, and The Gourds.  There are plenty of other great bands from this period, but I am using the distinction of bands that came directly out of the rock tradition of the 60’s, that again built on the tradition of American roots music.  Many of the other bands that one would argue that are great, that came from this period, have their roots in things that I would argue aren’t completely traditionally American.  Marah, one of my favorite bands of all time, has done several things internally that have held them back from being commercially successful.  Wilco has faired the best of the three in terms of commercial prospects.  However, I would say that the Gourds have actually been more consistent than Wilco throughout their career and are easily as deserving of the kind of critical acclaim that that band has seen.  Again, there are not many bands that can put out ten studio albums and all have them be valid as works of art.

I would also argue that the Gourds are not only one of the great American bands of Austin and their generation, but period.  The fact that they are not seen this way is partially due to both the terrible decline in music journalism and the sorry state of the modern music business.  Great bands that do not play by the rules have always been aided by those that know how to communicate what makes them great.  People in general are slow to warm to anything they cannot easily understand.  Sometime, if you have the time read the old music reviews in Rolling Stone and compare them to the new ones.  This is only one example, and Rolling Stone is by and large a legacy publication, but there was a point when they valued legitimate music criticism.  If you are not at a bands live show, and the Gourds are a band that has always excelled live, how do you find out about a band?  You either have to hear about them through word of mouth, see them through some kind of media, or read about them in some publication.  We are inundated with information in this day and age.  This makes word of mouth slower to travel.  The Gourds came up in that unique period when old media was dying and new media was being born.  I don’t believe the Gourds, in their refusal to be anyone but themselves, fit neatly into the new highly image conscious media world.  It was simply an issue of ill timing and fortune on that score.  As we have already discussed the print media, regarding music journalism, has declined to a disgraceful level.  Most people that are called music journalists nowadays couldn’t get a job at high school papers in years past.

I truly believe if there is any justice in the future, and the future is something we can never see, that the Gourds at some point will be recognized as one of the great American bands.  Except for maybe Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground, Elvis, the catalogue of Motown, and a small handful of other American artists that truly changed the way that we listen to music, I believe that the Gourds discography stacks up against all other contenders.

If you don’t know who the Gourds are you have a tremendous amount of material to enjoy exploring.  We now enjoy catching up on an entire TV series over the course of a weekend or week; this should be no different with music.  Dive in and explore.  You don’t have to take my word for it, as Morrissey once sang, “Why don’t you find out for yourself?”

It should be noted that I have worked with the Gourds in several capacities.  I play bass in Shinyribs with Kevin Russell and Keith Langford of the Gourds.  Kevin, Keith, and Jimmy played on my band No Show Ponies first album, The End of Feel Good Music.  I have also toured and done merchandise for the Gourds.  However, I am not blowing any smoke here.  Life is too short for bullshit.  I mean every word of the above article.  

I should also note that I am writing this in honor of what will be the Gourds last public show for awhile.  They are playin in Austin at Threadgill’s this Sunday.