Posts Tagged ‘Empty Cellar’

Pat Thomas

Cool Ghouls’ Pat Thomas ventures out solo for a second time, with a concise LP of tracks that pick at his personal indulgences outside of the breezy confines of his day gig with the Ghouls. Naturally there’s a general veneer of Cali-cool about the LP, but Thomas winds the album around a stylistic maze that sometimes meshes and sometimes clashes. There’s a prevalent thread of ‘70s AOR that pops up throughout the record, dipping his toes in the sharkskin slick pop of Steely Dan and tangling his tongue around the kind of pop nonsequitors that would make Joe Walsh check his hydration levels and belly back to the bar. Its here that Thomas seems most comfortable, flipping the background fizz of radio staples into winking pop nuggets. He dons the disguise well enough to slip into the grownups’ party but the sparkle in his eye and the flask in his pocket says he’s not planning on playing it cool for long.

Sometimes, though, the winking gets a bit too heavy and Thomas lets his disguises tumble and drop. He goes full ’60 bubblegum pop on “Are You Okay,” but rather than adopting the candy thick pop hooks and carefree attitude like The Dirtbombs achieved on their tribute to the sound, he goes for the clash and clang of The Banana Splits picking out covers of Sgt Pepper’s most over the top moments. It’s a bit too heavy on the sound effects to be more than pastiche leaning nostalgia. He finds the balance a bit better, though, on “What Is Coming,” a jittery new wave wobble that pecks at David Byrne’s bug-eyed ballast to great effect.

Horns get put through their paces on I Ain’t Buyin’ It, whip-lashing from grandeur to gloss to kinked-up skronk. They might actually be the most cohesive through-line to the whole record, shading each track with a brass sheen. Is a hodgepodge to be sure, but a well-constructed one and while the playing is ace it just feels like many of these might have been the start of a few different records all vying for dominance. Thomas has always had a deft hand in Cool Ghouls and its nice to see him shake out the wrinkles a bit and go for broke. If this is the odds and sods, then so be it, no one says every record is a front-to-back keeper. It’s a fun, if frivolous collection held together by faded yellow cellophane tape like the dollar bin names it checks. There’s definitely a few keepers in the bunch and in hindsight, I’ll be interested to see how this all leads to the next Cool Ghouls sound.



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Pat Thomas – “The Money Guys”

Told you it was a good time for the Bay this week, and here comes your next reason. Cool Ghouls have consistently stunned with their catalog of country-curled psych rock, with not a bummer in the bunch of their three albums. Now the band’s Pat Thomas is striking out on his own and tucking into the AOR shimmer of the ‘70s. He heralds his upcoming sophomore solo LP, I Ain’t Buyin’ It, with the golden glow of “The Money Guys.” The track hinges on the soft-focus horns and cellophane riffs that tied Chicago, The Doobies Bros. and Steely Dan together with late period Tim Buckley.

The track takes down economic inequality and does it while wearing boat shoes. It’s a ‘70s lounge jam critical of the man as played from the hired piano of venture capitalists’ own yachts. No one’s paying attention at the party so you might as well spite ‘em, eh? I’m eager to see where Pat takes the sound on this, too much of a plunge through ‘70s cheese could sink into pastiche, but if he keeps striking a balance between smooth strings and an acid tongue, then it could soar above easy listening.



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Joseph Childress

There are a lot of singer-songwriters you’ll encounter in life. Picking up a guitar and baring one’s soul isn’t such a unique experience among songwriters, but once the layers are peeled, it’s the soul that makes the difference. There’s a line between mere player and troubadour. For Childress, that line gets crossed on by the time we hit the second song on his debut proper. “Footsteps” is an emotional thunderball, building slowly in the distance, but arriving with an alchemical heft that’s proof that Childress has ability far beyond his years. It also proves to be no outlier on an album drawn from a well of stark beauty.

His eponymous LP is distinctly rural, capturing his move to ranching in Wyoming in all its isolating depths. There’s dust on the strings when Childress opens on the timely “My Land,” an ode to hard grit love and living in a time of constant consolidation by the powers that seek to keep a thumb down on the last bit of dirt that holds any worth in this world. He evokes the wild rivers in the ramble of guitar that accompanies “Whispering Tide” – creating a song that’s reflecting the clear blue stretch of sky right back out of the water’s ripples. “10,000 Horses” is grey-hued and smoldering like fog on the creek, beer worked and worn like the lone seat at the bar filled in the afternoon.

He’s not merely crafting a country album here. This is an otherworldly Americana born of modern means, yet crafted looking for timelessness. Childress has harnessed the quiet closeness of recording in solitude, confessional and quavering, a quality that often comes from albums made in sequester. He’s taken that solitary confinement and channeled a deep woven sadness that only comes to light when the tape captures a complete lack of self-preservation. There’s a parallel to be made with the States-based work of Sufjan Stevens, though Childress handles it with far less preciousness than Stevens prefers. The two men are both looking to record desperation, but Childress is capturing the stark permanence of gas station lunches and Marlboro Reds on the cracked Formica.

Actually, in an unfortunately prescient coincidence the album also brings to mind Tom Petty’s WildFlowers in that album’s quieter moments. Like that treatise on divorce and self-examination, Childress takes time to run his hand over each wrinkle in the mirror and turn the inner sadness into a bittersweet reflection on what makes us all unable to fully smile even in the most joyous times. Childress seems to know that even when the candles on the cake are burning for you, its all just a future ache of absence that will forever tug with a tidal pull on our emotions. For his complete commitment to that feeling though, I’m grateful that Childress has sent this quiet nod across the bar.




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Premiere: Joseph Childress – “Footsteps”

Joseph Childress’ debut has been a long time coming, building out of the bones of his sorely overlooked demo collection, The Rebirths, and inspired by a move to ranching in Wyoming. He embeds plenty of the wide-skied country charm on his eponymous debut, moving from Townes Van Zandt weary-eyed yarns to fingerpicked folk that showcases his technical side. However, there are few songs like “Footsteps” on this album. Building from a slow, plaintive pluck, the song is hushed and practically bumping against the quiet calm of summer cicadas when Childress lets us in. One minute on, a powerful piano chord transitions the tone from wistful to mournful.

Each consecutive moment takes Childress closer to the edge of breaking. The song works through emotions that have no boxes built to contain them. The end of the track sees Childress pleading with the listener, howling to the wind while it overtakes him – a storm of sound that’s on the precipice and teetering. As I mentioned, there are big skies on this album, but none bigger than here. Cracked with lightning, it is proof that Childress can sling songs with the best of them. The entirety of his self-titled album is engrossing, but this is a true high water mark.



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Cool Ghouls

Not all EP’s are created equal, and often when connected with a tour, the word ‘asset’ gets tossed around more than the word release. So, it’s comforting to know that even on a stopgap tape they created for tour, the band still maintains a high caliber of songwriting. Not that I’d call most Cool Ghouls releases regimented, but this has a looser feel than most of their work – delving into instrumental psychedelics to stretch out their stage muscles a bit, but more often, crafting breezy West Coast country psych ramblers that swell with jangles and amber hues.

On the tape’s title track, they’re at their faded AM best, flipping through the kind of private press psych that burns the mind and warms the insides. They’re cycling through their Byrds lineage well, picking from the band’s permutations while hinting at great imitators like The Wizards From Kansas or Sapphire Thinkers and even a bit of Moby Grape as well. The EP isn’t as coalesced as they’ve been on record, but it feels like a way to indulge some influences in a great way. To be honest the loose production suits them so well, it makes me hope that they carry over the general vibe of this into their next proper album. Hard to get a bad bump from the ghouls, and this paints them as ardent ’60 psych fans with deep shelves.


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Premiere: The Lovebirds – “Ready To Suffer”

San Francisco is full of guitar rock of the jangled variety but rising above the typical Mission fray soars The Lovebirds. They’re packing a satchel full of chiming chords here, but rather than throw a nod to SF’s ’60s roots, they channel College-ready literate charmers and powerpop dandies alike, drawing a line from the Groovies on down to Elvis Costello and Teenage Fanclub waiting in the wings. “Ready To Suffer” flicks at the subconscious, feeling familiar in a way that pushes it out of time, like a lost b-side from the archives of any of those bands.

It certainly doesn’t holler fresh-faced kids about town, that’s for sure, but that’s to the band’s credit as scholars of their influences. Add to the quality tunes some mix n’ master duties from RSTB faves Glenn Donaldson and Mikey Young respectively and this is a tight package and prime introduction to a band to watch.




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Earth Girl Helen Brown – “Earth Elevator”

An excellent bout of cosmic country from the always mercurial Earth Girl Helen Brown. The album this time around features quite a few familiar names – Emmett Kelley, Sonny Smith, Ty Segall, John Dwyer, Tim Cohen, and more. Simple and straightforward, “Earth Elevator” is a bittersweet romp with vocals of Heidi Alexander ringing sweet and low in your ears, a bit of twang and the barroom shuffle of drums her only companion. Better yet, proceeds from this and Alexander’s forthcoming seasonal installments will all benefit organizations of worth (this one goes towards 350.org, NDRC, Stand-LA). An all around charming start to the week to be sure.



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Grace Sings Sludge

Grace Cooper gathers storm clouds again for another midnight collection of her terminally haunted songwriting. Cooper’s work with San Francisco’s off-kilter folk group The Sandwitches laid the groundwork for her solo excursions under the Sludge moniker, and she’s been steadily conjuring up the woeful weeping of the lacerated heart ever since. The songs on Life With Dick, exist in a diorama of overgrown mansions, damp mossy undergrowth and barren basements that bounce her sadness right back at her from all directions. Cooper’s production is sparse and purposefully stripped back to let the sound flicker like the only candle in a room drawn off from strangers. Its somewhat heartening when she’s not alone and plucking, but no less full of the ghosts of the past.

On those tracks she ropes in the washtub thump of drums and a weary swing that feels like she’s stepped up to the mic at last call, growling and boiling her way through a set no one can take their eyes off of. Atmosphere is everything on Life With Dick, the air alternating between oddly parched and overly humid, as if the sputtering machinations of a malfunctioning air conditioner control the mood at any moment. Mind you, though, that Cooper is in full control of every smokey note here. The record is no happenstance of resources, she’s created this dark, Lynchian world and we’re set into it only to realize that her lounge has no doors. We’re locked in with Cooper’s sadness and it’s as captivating as it is contagious.




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Magic Trick

I’ve always loved that Magic Trick is Tim Cohen’s outlet to go full 70’s Tim Buckley. To wander down Gene Clark roadways and flesh out his troubadorisms outside of the bounds and expectations of The Fresh & Onlys. His voice has the easy, mellifluous quality that lends itself to his payday jangle-pop; but its just as comfortable in a dusted blazer, strumming songs alone in a smoke cloud, center studio to be augmented with all manner of accoutrements in post. Fresh & Onlys is a push-pull between Cohen’s gravitas and Wymond Miles’ furrowed tension, but left to their own devices they’re able to amp up their strengths, as is evident with Miles’ stunning turn earlier this year. In his own right Cohen lets Other Man’s Blues shine as a darker corner of his songwriting, feeling far from breezy, the album is interested more in creating a collective enviornment that utilizes the studio as process and as partner.

The album benefits from a huge, rotating cast of players, as Cohen holed up for a week with Phil Manley but invited plenty of friends to drop by and shape the record. The result is less slap/dash than it its the culmination of several secret weapons all converging as one to give Cohen’s songs wings. James Barone (Beach House) and Alicia Van Heuvel (Aislers Set) turn in time and studio Swiss Army knife Emmett Kelly (The Cairo Gang / The Muggers) rears his head as well. The album certainly doesn’t come off as something that went into recording open-ended, but the collaborative spirit gives Other Man’s Blues that right sense of drinking-til-dawn-to-find-the-song that gave life to those 70′ hallmarks of excess turned brilliance. Cohen may have only spent a week hammering out the cramps on Other Man’s Blues but the mindset of month long jaunts and nights spent ’til dawn in the live room take root here, making it feel like someone lost a fortune for us to all find hope in its arms. Even if that’s not the case, the record’s still bigger sounding than most living rooms, cars or headphones can hope to contain and for that I’m grateful.



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Cool Ghouls

Three albums deep, Cool Ghouls are hitting their stride nicely. They’ve always had a good handle on the germ of West Coast rock that’s practically embedded in the pavement of their native San Francisco, now they’re just working to perfect it. With Kelley Stoltz on board, they’re coming pretty close, that’s for sure. The veteran engineer and producer (Thee Oh Sees, The Mantles, Sonny & The Sunset) helps the band find that eternal sunset, tightening the tracks on Animal Races into the kind of album that breezes by effortlessly and feels like its always just been a part of the West Coast jangle-pop lexicon. Where their previous album, A Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye found them playing up the Beatles/Kinks harmonies, now they’re leaning full-bore into their Dead/Byrds/Quicksilver Messenger Service motions and feeling like they’re nailing the amount of carefree composure and sunlit harmonies necessary to pick up that yoke some forty years on.

What really makes it feel right, is that they’re not pedaling sunshine and cheer. The Byrds knew how to make a 12-string sing and lift your heart, but they also knew that a bittersweet soul makes a catchy chorus stick with listeners long after that earworm fades. Animal Races has that lilting sadness running through its waters, evident in the forlorn sighs and yearning pedal steel of “When You Were Gone” and “(If I Can’t Be) The Man” or the world weary lyrics of “Days.” If you want to be the kind of person to nitpick, no there’s nothing revolutionary happening on Animal Races. The sound has been around and, as I mentioned, Cool Ghouls are merely perfecting their take on it, and honing a crisp version of their heroes’ headway. But no one says that the walls all need to crumble for a record to be great. Animal Races succeeds because it sets a tone and blooms as an album of skilled tradesmen finding sweetness in sadness.



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