No Show Ponies to Go On Hiatus

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It is with equal parts sadness and joy that I announce that my band, No Show Ponies, of which I have been a member of for probably close to 15 years, is going on hiatus while my brother, and partner in the band, attends law school in Pennsylvania.  I am sad that my best friend and band mate is moving away, but I am happy that he is pursuing something that he has a passion for.  I will be starting a new musical project, but I will talk about that at a later date.  For the time being I would like to talk about how much working with my brother has meant to me.

My brother, Ben Brown, is one of the most talented musicians that I have ever come across.  I’m talking about a guy that could learn a Beach Boys song with 15 chords in it in five minutes by ear.  I’m talking about someone that I have almost never heard sing off key in the 15 years I have worked with him. (And I personally know something about singing off key!)  This is someone that has cultivated an original voice AND an original guitar style.  These are not easy things to do.  He wrote great songs and always made my songs better by adding little twists and turns that were extremely musical.  If I got stuck on a bridge or a chorus, I would ask him what to do, and he would always come up with something inventive and catchy.

When we decided to become a three piece Ben moved to electric guitar.  He had very little experience on this instrument as he had primarily played acoustic guitar.  If necessity is the mother of invention, he soon developed a style that I have not heard anywhere else in Austin.  He could jump from the fast picking jangle guitar of someone like Johnny Marr to post punk art noise solos in the drop of a hat.  Listen to the way he works the fretboard on our song I Love You All the Same.  There is only one guitar going on there, but it seems like two.  On my song You’re Never As Good As You Think You Are, he manages to put both extremes of his playing in one song.  While most guitar players rely on stock blues and pentatonic licks, he just ignored those and went his own way.

You can hear examples of my brothers guitar playing, songwriting, and singing at www.noshowponies.bandcamp.com.  He plays all of the guitars on that record and is the one with the baritone voice.

Throughout the years we got to do some pretty neat things together.  We opened for some of our favorite bands in The Gourds and Marah.  We opened for Hillary Clinton at one of her political rallies, and one of our songs was chosen by her for a campaign commercial.  Jon Dee Graham and members of the Gourds played on one of our records.  We got a day dedicated to us by the Austin City Council and Mayor.  Numerous nights of fun are too many to mention.

For those of you that don’t know what it is like to sing and play with your brother, it is simply magical.  We could work without language.  We had the same rhythmic timing and could harmonize with very little effort.  Something happens when you play music with family that goes outside the normal realm of reason and explanation.

More than being just a great musician who I have had the honor to work with, Ben is my best friend.  It’s not anyone that you could be in a band with for 15 years.  Through low times and high times he had my back and I had his.

I have lived with Ben for all but three years of my life and in the same city for all but two.  Words can’t express how much I will miss him as my musical partner and as my roommate.  I will carry on, but just because that is what one must do in life.  We have had many ridiculous adventures along the way.  I wish him the absolute best as he moves on to this next chapter in his life.  I know at some point we will play together again.  This is but a momentary lapse in the proceedings.  I am not losing a friend or a brother, but just a band mate for the time being.  I know this, yet I still feel that these are titanic days for myself.  In closing I want to leave with a few selected lyrics from Morrissey’s song Forgive Someone.  Most of you might not understand why I am leaving it with this song, but it will bring a smile to Ben, and that is all that matters to me:

Use a weapon of words
Or a fight with your fists
But can you forgive someone?
Stand your ground and persist
And be the last one to blink
But can you forgive someone?

And if you do I’ll run to you
Betray you with a word
I would slit my own throat first of all
I will

Our truth will die with me
Our truth will die with me
Our truth will die with me

Alvvays Album Review

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Recently I was checking out album reviews at Rolling Stone.  There is a band called Alvvays that got a four star review and thought I’d investigate further.  I liked what I heard in the samples, as I am a fan of finely crafted girl pop melodies and fast picked jangle guitar playing, and I though I would investigate further.  The record is even produced as if it came from that interesting period of early 80’s post punk, when real alternative music to the mainstream was quite interesting.  The production is muddy in the right way that adds a bit of mystery to the proceedings, although it continues the terrible trend of mixing the vocals low, so that most of the words are lost on you without a lyric booklet.

They band has a keyboard player as well as featuring two guitars, and the keyboards add just enough of an extra dimension at times so the music doesn’t seem completely formulaic.  The melodies are effervescent in the way that Kirsty MacColl’s were, although the singer, Molly Revkin, does not possess the unique personality or wit of the undeniably great Kirsty MacColl.

But the more I listen to the band the more the music dissipates.  The lyrics are clever in that cute kind of way, but nothing more.  The music sounds great, in that kind of way that would make it perfect listening to an afternoon of reading or talking to a friend, but again the more I pay attention the less I seem to care.  I can’t help but feel that this is an almost great record.  But at the end of the day it feels like style over substance.

There is some nifty guitar playing going on, and again the melodies are quite good.  However, I wish there were lyrics that lived up to the rest of the proceedings.  I wish there were words that were either simple and universal poetry the way old 60’s pop songs used to be, or even better conveyed some kind of subversive intelligence that made you feel as if something was on the line.

Recently I have been listening to Louder than Bombs by the Smiths.  The music on the Alvvays record seems quite influenced by Johnny Marr’s jingle jangle guitar, but without any of the weirder eccentricities that he would often introduce into the music.  And again the lyrics fall far short of a Morrissey or even a Kirsty MacColl.  (Johnny Marr was in the Smiths with Morrissey and also wrote with Kirsty MacColl.)  I feel like I can neither relate to the lyrics on any day to day basis, nor are any secrets of the universe being unlocked.

As far as first albums go, there is enough in the way of style to think that there might be a promising future ahead.  However, to do something great they are going to need to push themselves further and, especially lyrically, to think more outside the box.  The lyrics are just clever enough to make you realize that they are not dumb.  I hope that Miss Rankin, or whoever writes the lyrics, will keep reading and pushing herself.  If you are looking for some good summer background music this album does have its charms.  However, if you are looking for something more substantial look elsewhere.

Comparing Songwriting to Drawing

I like to think of a song as a pencil drawing.  It is the most important part of the drawing, because it defines what it is you are looking at. But with good musicianship and the production, the colors and the frame, it can be made to resemble many different things.  You could draw a picture of a cowboy, but then you could color it in with strange colors and make it a psychedelic cowboy.  Or you could color it is with traditional instruments, make it rustic and dust worn, and it could be a traditional country western song.  You could put it up with no frame or you could put a frame up around it that makes it look as if it should hang in some expensive gallery.  That’s what musicianship and production do, they take that thing that is either great or not on it’s own, and make it presentable to more people.  A great song, like John Lennon’s Imagine, would be great in any form, whether just as a sketch or as the final product, produced by Phil Spector.  Meanwhile, you take something like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and although there is some song craft going on there, most of the true magic is in the production and the musicianship.  They are taking a simple drawing and making it into a piece of art through attention to detail.  Meanwhile I just looked at the Billboard Top 20.  Most of that stuff is like someone pissing on a canvas, putting it in an expensive frame, and then telling you it is is a portrait of Jesus.

Dark Despair and Gallows Humor

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In order to not completely burn myself out on the new Morrissey disc, World Peace is None of your Business, which I could easily listen to a thousand times until I need to move on, I have been mixing it up with some Frank Sinatra.  I especially like Sinatra’s music where he is drowning in gloom.  This would be on albums like Only the Lonely and No One Cares.  These are albums filled with maudlin songs full of despair over lost love.  Unlike teenage pop songs, where no matter how sad the music is you know that they will eventually be OK, because they are young and will bounce back, this is music for adults, where all hope has gone out of the window.  In teenage pop, which I love as well, it feels like a tragedy, but we know it is not.  On these Sinatra albums they are the sound of a middle age man running out of time to correct his mistakes.  In fact, the narrator of each song, may be out of time, forever destined to walk the earth bearing the grief of his lost love, like Marley’s Ghost with his chains.

When things go this jet black, maybe it’s just me, but I also feel like they go through the looking glass and cross over to a certain kind of gallows humor.  This in no way dims the true sadness of these records, nor do I mean it in any kind of ironic sense as if I’m smirking at the albums.  But tragedy and comedy have always been very close to me.  It is through this sort of transition between tragedy and dark, dark comedy, that emotional release comes and the records actually become therapeutic.  Instead of wallowing in the despair of the narrator, as voyeurs into the world of the narrator, we can exercise our own emotions and transcend them.

World Peace is None of Your Business Album Review

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Songs about suicide that you can dance to, songs that are devastating critiques of the male ego, songs where we root for a bull fighter’s death so that the bull can survive, songs where we are told to kick the bride down the aisle, songs of poetry that vividly attack the justice system and bring an old prison alive in our imagination, and songs unafraid to look into the abyss;  These are all songs on one album and that is the new Morrissey album, World Peace is None of Your Business.  This album is subversive, intelligent, heartbreaking, and funny as hell.  This album is not just the work off one man however; This album is also the work of a band at the height of their powers and of a producer that brings the best out of everyone involved.

This is a record that is extremely musical.  The album begins with a didgeridoo and goes on to include trumpets, clarinets, flamenco solos, gorgeous keyboards, savage electric guitars, pure noise, and delicately played acoustics.  It is all anchored with the best rhythm section of the man’s career.  The record not only expands the language of pop music, but also the language of music itself.  Sure, in this place and time almost everything has been done, but this record does stake out it’s own small piece of earth.  Have you ever heard a didgeridoo go into a beautifully gorgeous glam rock ballad that also features moments of take the paint off the wall guitar?  All while lines like, “The police will disable you with tasters,” are delivered in a gentle croon.  That’s just song number one.  Anyone that claims that this album isn’t at least trying to push the envelope is either offended by what it has to say, or is so caught up in the baggage of Morrissey’s long career that they’re not listening with anything resembling human ears.

The album swings between transcendent pop and epic show stopping masterpieces.  Take a song like Staircase at the University.  The song resembles in theme the 1960’s “death discs” where tragedy was masked in effervescent melodies.  In this song a female student under pressure from her family and loved ones throws herself down the title stairs until her head, “splits three ways.”  However, when the song ends in a triumphant flamenco guitar solo and eventually handclaps, you find yourself smiling against all odds.

On the other ends of the spectrum there are songs like I’m Not a Man and Mountjoy.  These are two of the best songs Morrissey has ever recorded.  I’m Not a Man takes all of the ways in which traditional manhood is defined and discards them.  From Cassanova and Don Juan, to the warring caveman and the soldier, he dreams up something kinder and better than man as we know it.  “And I would never destroy this planet that I’m on / Well, what do you think I am, a man?”

Mountjoy, minus a line about a judge, described as a, “three foot half wit in a wig”, is deadly serious.  The song is about the famous prison in Ireland that among regular prisoners also housed famous ones such as Brendan Behan, who is also mentioned in the song.  He uses poetic language to not only create the horrible conditions of the prison itself and the justice system that put it in place, but also to ask big questions about the human condition.

Musically this album’s closest resemblance to Morrissey’s catalog is as an updated version of Viva Hate or Bona Drag.  There are times when Jesse Tobias’s overly distorted electric guitar brings to mind Vini Reilly’s guitar on Alastian Cousin.  There are also the extremely colorful arrangements and strange twists and turns in the production from that period.  However, producer Joe Chiccarelli has updated the sound and brought new colors to it as well.  He is somehow able to bring out both the delicate details of the arrangements without them losing any muscle.  Also new multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Manzur brings in all kinds of wold influences from the aforementioned flamenco guitar to the French sounding accordion breakdown of Earth is the Loneliest Planet.

This is Morrissey’s most outwardly looking album of all time, both musically and lyrically.  A song like Istanbul not only is sung in character as someone from the title city, but features musical nods and sound effects to that city as well till we feel that we are caught down in the human muck with the song’s narrator.  The once most British of pop stars is now casting a wide eye across the globe with equal bits empathy and disgust.

The only song that sounds as it is definitely written in Morrissey’s own voice is the final song Oboe Concerto.  “The older generation has tried, sighed,and died / which pushes me to their place in the queue.”

I can’t recommend this album enough.  It is a record of both despair and defiance that features more wit than most singers could muster in a lifetime.  As much as this album looks at the world at large, as Morrissey is thematically not only expanding what he has attempted before, but again also the language of pop music, he still ends the album with a British stiff upper lip as he accepts the reality of life and repeats over and over:

Round, rhythm goes round
Round, rhythm of life goes round

*Some of you that subscribe to this blog may have originally gotten a different review of this album.  I apologize about sending out two different reviews, but I wrote the first one when I was exhausted and simply wasn’t happy with it.  I make a point of never going back and changing anything I wrote, other than for errors, but every rule needs to be broken sometimes.  

The Molly Maguires

Make way for the Molly Maguires 
They’re drinkers, they’re liars but they’re men 
Make way for the Molly Maguires 
You’ll never see the likes of them again 

Down the mines no sunlight shines 
Those pits they’re black as hell 
In modest style they do their time 
It’s Paddy’s prison cell 
And they curse the day they’ve travelled far 
Then drown their tears with a jar 

So make way for the Molly Maguires 
They’re drinkers, they’re liars but they’re men 
Make way for the Molly Maguires 
You’ll never see the likes of them again 

Backs will break and muscles ache 
Down there there’s no time to dream 
Of fields and farms, of womans arms 
Just dig that bloody seam 
Though they drain their bodies underground 
Who’ll dare to push them around 

So make way for the Molly Maguires 
They’re drinkers, they’re liars but they’re men 
Make way for the Molly Maguires 
You’ll never see the likes of them again 

So make way for the Molly Maguires 
They’re drinkers, they’re liars but they’re men 
Make way for the Molly Maguires 
You’ll never see the likes of them again

I absolutely love Luke Kelly and the Dubliners.  My family, on my Dad’s side, also comes from the coal mining region of Pennsylvania.  This song is obviously romanticized, but it is great nonetheless. I’ve printed the lyrics in part a long time ago, but thought that I would post them in full.

If you are interested in learning about the Molly Maguires here is the wikipedia page on them:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molly_Maguires

It is an interesting time in our history that is often overlooked.

Death in Capitalism

Has anyone noticed how quick iTunes is to capitalize on the death of a musician?  I swear to god, superstar or not, someone dies and the next thing you know their music is moved to the front page and we are told to pay tribute to it.  We’re paying tribute to it, iTunes is capitalizing off of it.  I finally got a new computer and I have been getting my iTunes set back up, and it happened to be open when I turned my computer on today.  Sure enough Tommy Ramone’s picture was plastered along with a link to all of the Ramones music.  I guess this is a fitting response to death in a capitalist society. You truly mattered if big business can make money off of your untimely demise.  I loved the Ramones.  They are how I learned to play guitar and bass, and how I learned to write my first songs.  Anyone want to buy a couple CD’s of theirs in honor of Tommy?  

Shinyribs and No Show Ponies Dates

I’ll be appearing tomorrow night in Austin at the Saxon Pub with No Show Ponies.  Our set begins at 10pm sharp.  

http://thesaxonpub.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/July-20142.pdf

http://www.noshowponies.com

Hear our new album at http://www.noshowponies.bandcamp.com

Unfortunately, tonight’s Blues on the Green show with Shinyribs has been rescheduled for 8/13.  This show also will take place in Austin, Texas.  

http://www.shinyribs.org

 

 

Line of Best Fit Review of World Peace is None of Your Business

http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/reviews/albums/morrissey-world-peace-is-none-of-your-business-harvest?

The above review by Michael James Hall is the best review I have read yet of Morrissey’s new album, World Peace is None of Your Business.  I don’t agree with a few of his small criticisms,  and in the beginning he makes the same mistake of many journalists by saying that basically this is a return to form.  Although it has been five years since Morrissey put out a new album, and I do believe his new album to be the best of his newer releases, all of his last three studio albums have been essential listening for me.  Anyway, these are small complaints because Hall does largely get why this is simply a fantastic release both musically and lyrically.  This record is not only one of the crowning achievments in Mozzer’s career, but is absolutely one of the best albums put out by anyone in recent years.  I have only heard the album three times, as travel has prevented me from streaming it more, but each time my jaw has been on the floor.  If you are looking for intelligent music that is also subversive,  very melodic, and musically inventive,  look no further.  Once I get home, and get my hands on a physical copy, I intend to explain in full detail why I think so highly of this record.  I am clearly a fan, as anyone else reading this blog can tell, but this record belongs in any intelligent music lovers collection.  It is that good.  On first listen some the melodies seem complex and challenging, but by listen three every one  of them is ingrained in your head, never to leave.  Also, even if Morrissey had been taken off the record, his band is reaching new heights, creating music that is stunning in its own right.  I know that I have been writing a lot Morrissey lately, maybe too much to some reader’s consternation,  but I am simply over the moon about this album.  It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to…

You can stream the record here in full in the states:
http://www.npr.org/2014/07/06/326925957/first-listen-morrissey-world-peace-is-none-of-your-business

nme.com is streaming it in England. 

People Change

I am headed to Canada on tour to play the Winnipeg Folk Festival with Shinyribs.  I am most excited about the possible prospect of seeing fellow performer Buffy Sainte-Marie,  who is one of my heroes for her music and her political stances.  She was absolutely fearless, despite being a woman and a Native American at a time when it wasn’t easy to be either.  She walked it and talked it all while making completely unique albums.  There aren’t many people that can say they were black balled by President Johnson and appeared on Sesame Street.  

I haven’t been to Canada since my senior class trip almost 17 years ago.  At the time I was mostly concerned with getting drunk where the drinking age was only 18 and possibly landing a girl.  The drinking happened, but the girl didnt.  Now my priority is seeing someone that speaks truth to power while remaining sober enough to take in every moment, if I can get in.  No matter how well we think we know ourselves we can’t even predict ourselves can we?  As Nick Lowe sings:

People change
That’s the long and short of it
Prepare for it or get bit
People change