Friday, August 11, 2006

Wide Open Skies

Rome's Little Country Giants Blur Boundaries And Revel In Love And Murder

Story by Chad Radford.
Photo by Chris Ozment.

Russell and Cameron Cook gaze wearily at their shoes and then at each other as they ponder where in the lexicon of rural music their group, Little Country Giants fits in. As a brand, “country music” is as meaningless and problematic as words like “indie,” “alternative” and “roots” music. And despite the implications of a name like Little Country Giants, to dismiss the group’s amalgamation of stark and artfully rustic tones simply as “country music” denies a great many things.

Throughout the group’s proper debut, a self-released CD, titled Breaking Hearts & Living Free, a slow and captivating interplay unfolds between Russell and Cameron – the group’s core songwriters –invoking a pastiche of musical mile markers. Live the group is filled-out by guitarist Joseph and backup vocalist Julie Evans, with occasional contributions from other performers, including fiddle player Jim Kirkland.

Prior to Breaking Hearts the group put together a full-length recording, titled Just For This Song’s Time, but it never saw much a of a release, other than a few unmastered CDRs. These days the recording is available only through I-tunes.

The “high and lonesome” wail of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and the nylon strings strummed on Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger have played an indelible role in sculpting the Rome, GA outfit’s sound. But it’s the strength of Cameron’s voice in songs like “Come Go With Me” or “I Remember” and the tangle of internal rhythms in “Big Freightliner” that give the group a distinctive sense of character. Russell’s mild croon in “Something to Be Proud of” is an enthralling detour into the group’s multifaceted personality.

Each song builds around simple arrangements. Cameron plucks an upright bass while Russell plays guitar. Both trade vocal duties from song to song. One voice and one instrument working in harmony sans studio tricks and a minimal drum track give rise to haunting pace. “There are some drums on the record, but not a lot,” Russell clarifies. Cameron breaks in to add, “We’ve found that when we play without drums the group tends to draw out and develop its own rhythms in the push and pull between the rest of the instruments.”

Just as the group relies on its own devices to lead the way, it’s the marriage of such an innovative approach with a traditional country mythos that sets Little Country Giants apart. “I like music that doesn’t have any boundaries,” Russell explains. “A lot of those old country guys absorbed a lot of music: jazz, bluegrass, folk all kinds of things and they didn’t allow themselves to be limited to playing just one style of music.”

Just as Russell and Cameron are eager to embrace so many musical avenues there are a few bumps in the road. “A lot of people compare us to the Carter Family and I really don’t like that,” Cameron admits. “Sure I like the Carter Family but the whole ‘You Are My Sunshine’ is not us. Likewise, Russell staves off a wince when talking about folk music. “When I hear the word folk I think of the whole Peter, Paul & Marry thing and that’s not us either,” he says.

There is an inherent sweetness and the obligatory heartbreak that comes along with country music that drives much of Little Country Giants’ songs. After all, the group is bound by a married couple, and the sense of romance in a song like “More Than Everything” is an undeniable love letter to each other. But darkness hides behind every corner. “Willie Dear” is bleak and disturbing murder ballad. It’s a love letter from one lover who’s just killed another. Sagging notes shroud the song that cuts off before the heaviness of it all has a chance to sink in. The evil that men and women do is a powerful closer for such a musically diverse album.

This kind of dark storytelling is an element that flourishes throughout LCG’s forthcoming album, Sing Pretty for the People, which is currently being recorded with Chris Griffin in Atlanta. “This is a much darker journey than Breaking Hearts & Living Free,” says Griffin. “Each song is essentially just vocals and an acoustic guitar and an acoustic bass.”

Songs like “Power and the Glory” and “Straight Blade” possess a dry and dusty sound complimented by a sparse and spiritually afflicted lyrical content that draws out a dark, natural resonance that lingers in the unaffected arrangements and voices of each brittle number. “You can hear the wood of the instruments and the content is much darker than before,” Griffin adds. “These songs are less about love and more about killing people.”

Published by Flagpole Magazine (8/8/06).

Dinosaur Jr.

J. Mascis Live at CBGB’s: The First Acoustic Show

In retrospect, the ‘90s weren’t a remarkable time for Dinosaur Jr. After Lou Barlow and Murph. exited the picture the group degraded into something of a classic rock mutant. Feedback, fuzz and ear-bleeding volume usurped the noisy and gut crunching punk/alt. rock gems of early albums, like Dinosaur, You’re Living All Over Me and Bug. Sure it still looked good on paper, and after all J Mascis did have a few good songs left in him. “The Wagon” from Green Mind and “Start Choppin” from Where You Been come to mind. But these truly great songs were growing fewer and farther between. J. Mascis Live at CBGB’s: The First Acoustic Show captures a Dinosaur of another color. The fog has been lifted, exposing the raw subtleties of songs like “Flying Cloud” and “Throw Down.”
Hearing these songs in such a jittery and naked state adds depth to Mascis’ normally murky and sunken din. There’s not much to hide behind as he strums and bellows through “Every Mother’s Son,” “On the Run” and “Repulsion.” As a result the aggressive façade that accompanies the melancholy of Dinosaur Jr.’s proper albums has melted away leaving nothing but earnestness and the naturally nerdy intonations of Mascis’ voice in full view. This first acoustic show offers an unfettered glimpse at the real songsmith hiding inside such a Jurassic sound, and an invitation to check out the man standing behind the curtain.

--Chad Radford

Published by Flagpole Magazine (8/8/06).

Thursday, August 10, 2006



Lou Barlow was a real dick when Sebadoh III hit the streets way back in 1991. It’s overwhelmingly apparent in the jerky chords and vindictive prowess of opener “The Freed Pig,” but it wasn’t out without warrant. Barlow was the guy you loved to hate – the same psycho guy who dated your girlfriend right before you started dating her and now exists for the sole purpose of psychological torment. III was such a huge and coherent departure from the self-congratulating noise that preceded it on The Freed Man and Weed Forestin' that the record became a landmark not only for Sebadoh, but for indie rock at large. Fueling self-reliance with self-indulgence became the battle cry for the homemade indie rock ‘90s and Sebadoh was on the frontline. Everyone from Pavement to Guided by Voices to Superchunk owes Barlow and Co. a huge debt for clearing the path.

These songs feature the classic Sebadoh line-up of Eric Gaffney (drums / guitar) and Jason Lowenstein (drums / guitar), which is a nice look at the group’s first real configuration as a solid songwriting unit, and it is legitimately worthy of a second look after all these years. Sure Sebadoh went on to do much bigger and better things, but III captures a pivotal point where Barlow’s brash attempts at hiding his insecurities mingle with songwriting input from Gaffney and Lowenstein, forging a very beautiful partnership. Chemistry is bubbling and turning in this jumble of words and tones and a definite pattern was starting to take shape. This is the first step in a captivating new direction that bridges the viral parts of Barlow’s bouts with Dinosaur Jr. with a refined noise-folk- personality. Not to mention that a song like “Kath” or the frazzled rendition of the Minutemen’s “Sickles and Hammers” are absolutely stunning even when freed from the thick white tape fuzz; serving as a reminder of what made Sebadoh appealing in the first place.

This remastered reissue lifts the fog, revealing that as much quaint charm shoddy recording gave to mantras, like “Wonderful, Wonderful,” “Supernatural Force" and "Renaissance Man” there is some genuinely great songwriting hiding in the haze.

In later years Barlow publicly expressed some grievances with the lo-fi image of the band, but back then that’s all he could afford. So from the ear of the beholder the main fear going in to this cleaned up reissue is that he would have gone back and performed some unholy George Lucas-style pillage of the tapes, and botched them up to sickening degrees. But thankfully that is most certainly not the case. The remaster job only highlights those lyrical nuances, and shifts in sound quality to flesh out what’s already there. At moments, such as the openign riff of "Thee Freed Pig" the improvements pack a hell of a wallup. But when the record reaches it's stride it the pace and fidelty just feel natural.

The second disc, on the other hand is not so much a critical revisit to the obscure tidbits, but a document for collectors and musical archaeologists. The much lauded, though better left forgotten Gimmie Indie Rock 7” comes off sounding like a Budweiser commercial. Likewise, the slacker jeer in “Showtape ‘91” is a staunch reminder that yes indeed Barlow was a real dick back the good old days. But that's alright. Everything feels like a release... Thereapy after fired from Dinosaur Jr.

There’s a reason why these kind of inside jokes, idiocy and awkwardness never wound up on any proper albums. Only Barlow obsessives could find the patience to endure what up until now had existed as throw away cuts. If you're one of those suckers bought the 7” on e-Bay for $30, it’s nice to have these songs on CD, so you can stop man-handling your colored vinyl. But the second disc definitely takes a back seat to the essential listen that is Sebadoh III.

--Chad Radford


Dead Weight
Ad Noiseam

Larvae’s second full-length is a much more introspective hybrid of electronic and acoustic songs than the dark drum-and-bass of the group’s previous efforts. Dead Weight strips the predictably bombastic rhythms at the heart of Larvae’s sound by placing an emphasis on the subtleties lingering in the spaces between.

Hope For Agoldensummer’s Campbell sisters’ haunting croon in “Airplanes” is a humid declaration that Larvae is not up to its old tricks. There is a fundamental break from plugging cold and mechanical beats to a more song-oriented approach throughout each number.

“Nation of Bling” is a crunchy collaboration with avant-garde rappers Shadow Huntaz. “Telecast” wraps glitchy rhythms around Jessica Bailiff’s spectral voice, redesigning the borders between electronic and acoustic music, resulting in a thoroughly engaging creation.

--Chad Radford
Originally published by Creative Loafing, Atlanta (7/12/06).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Revenge of the Star Wars Nerds

Larvae’s Empire Pays Homage to the Darkside


Matthew Jeanes huffs an emphatic “yes!” when asked if he’s a fan of Revenge of the Sith, the latest and final installment to George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. But as the gravity of his response takes hold he cautiously follows with a disclaimer: “There’s two ways to look at it. As someone who watches and thinks about a lot of cinema it has some obvious problems. But for someone who was in the theater when he was 5 years-old watching The Empire Strike Back it’s great!” he adds with childlike gusto.

It’s this guarded enthusiasm for Star Wars --and apprehension over its “problems” -- that serves as the force behind Larvae’s Empire 12” EP.

As the principle knob-twiddler behind the Atlanta-based dark-ambient/drum-and-bass outfit, Jeanes’ looming stature, bold features and catalogue of murky and foreboding beats could easily place him on the side of Darth Vader. But in person his pleasant demeanor and self-effacing tone are a far cry from the menacing Sith lords of Star Wars. “I know it’s kind of a geeky thing to do and I’m walking a fine line between looking like I’m cashing in on Star Wars and doing what I want to do,” he admits. “But this is my love letter to the Star Wars universe.”

Together with fellow programmer Chris Burnett and the group’s resident film maker Bryan Meng, the trio’s brand of bombastic post-industrial sights and sounds has landed Larvae on stages around the world. Performing with likeminded European artists, Scorn and Panacea and churning out remixes for Dälek and Enduser; while issuing recordings on the Berlin-based Ad Noiseam Records, Larvae has bored into the global electronic music community. But for this outing, Jeanes went it alone. “Chris is kind of into Star Wars and Bryan could take it or leave it, so this was sort of my own effort,” Jeanes adds.

The group’s 2003 Monster Music debut EP was a half-joking and loosely conceptual recording built around themes of Godzilla, or as Jeanes describes, “guys in big rubber suits stomping on a city.” With Empire he wanted to move in a similar direction by creating heavy-handed soundscapes that maintain a vast and brooding sensibility, but are also embedded with a sense of humor. Finding balance between creating a schmaltzy Star Wars-themed record and crafting something that can stand on its own merits was the challenge.

Beyond the title track, any and all overt Star Wars references are kept to a minimum. “Empire” is littered with samples from The Empire Strikes Back's film score interwoven with video game and read-along-with-the record sound bytes. The rest of the songs are inspired by Star Wars, but aren’t based on any concrete links to the films or its franchises.

Later numbers, like “Solo Shoots First” and “Hayden’s Ghost” find Jeanes’ feeling the power of the darkside over Lucas’ additions to the original trilogy as a lattice of massive beats, bass swells and digital skronks unfurl.

The record was officially released on May 19th, the same day Revenge of the Sith hit theaters in the U.S. Since January Larvae’s website has hosted a Star Wars blog site used to promote the record’s impending arrival. The Atlanta record release party takes place at Lenny’s on Monday, June 13 as part of the Kirkwood Ballers Club open mic. night. Around midnight Larvae will play a 45-minute set amidst the usual 10-minute rounds of experimental jazz, noise, punk and indie rock.

Though there’s no word from the Lucas camp yet, without licensing the samples from Star Wars that are used throughout the record, receiving a Cease and Desist order is a definite possibility, but is somewhat unlikely.

“On the scale we’re working, the money it would take to pay a law firm to pursue this would cost way more than they could ever make off of the small run of 12”s we have,” Jeanes says. “But it is, without a doubt, infringing upon some copyrights.”

Let's just say he hopes to avoid any imperial entanglements.

Originally published by Creative Loafing, Atlanta (06/08/05).