Game for a Throne: Northampton’s Jesse French Dreams Big as King of Nowhere

King of Nowhere 3 (Photo credit Georgia Teensma)

Jesse French aka King of Nowhere (Photo credit: Georgia Teensma)

Jesse French is not your average gardener. Though by day, the Hampshire College graduate works for the Trustees of Reservations in Holyoke, Mass. doing landscaping and maintenance, by night the musician inside French comes out to play.

From jobs doing live sound at local clubs to his membership in Pioneer Valley bands like Young Tricksters, Ex Temper and The Hampshire College Grateful Dead Historical Society, French has found no shortage of outlets for his budding musical talent. But recently, the Northampton resident decided to add another project to his already crowded schedule.

Under the name King of Nowhere, French has launched his artistic canoe into fresh and more personal waters. He’s already recorded an album, Becoming, under the new moniker and hopes to push the boundaries of rock and folk music with a still evolving style.

“[Becoming] really marks the beginning of King of Nowhere as the identity for my artistic output,” French says. “It feels good to move forward with a name that can encompass the contributions of others and feels less centered around me.”

While Becoming does features contributions from other musicians like Becca Malin (vocals), Aaron Noble (drums), Lucy Hollier (viola) and Abigail Hobart (violin), the end result still resembles a glimpse into the private thoughts of French, who plays guitar, bass and sings throughout. Songs like “Beverly Hospital” and “Domestic Policy” seem to illustrate the struggles of knowing how to love or be worthy of affection. And “Meltdown” employs quiet and loud passages to paint a picture of an individual dealing with undisclosed personal problems.

King of Nowhere 2 (Photo credit: Georgia Teensma)

(Photo credit: Georgia Teensma)

French says, “The most challenging thing for me was putting out these songs that feel very naked and revealing. The most personal songs in the batch of this time period didn’t make the album, but there are still plenty of things dealt with in these songs that I would find difficult to talk about. Fortunately, no one ever seems to understand the lyrics.”

Listeners will get a good chance to catch every one of French’s words as he plays upcoming King of Nowhere shows solo, using looping technology to recreate the sounds and textures of Becoming.

“If people spend time with these songs, I think a lot of parts of me come through quite strongly,” French notes. “I’ve explored experiences and characteristics of myself, but this work is also a lens through which to view the things going on around us. Finding bands when I was younger that had a particular message and view of the world was hugely important in my development into the person that I am, and I hope that people can share a little bit of the way I see things through these songs.”

For more information on King of Nowhere and to listen to “Becoming” please visit http://kingofnowhere.bandcamp.com/releases.

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Three for Crowds: Trio of Music Festivals Bringing Family Atmosphere to Western Mass

Green River Festival crowd (Photo credit: Jake Jacobson)The music festival, once a haven for the young, rebellious and sometimes nude, has become a family affair.

Forget Coachella, forget Bonnaroo, and forget Lollapalooza. This summer Western Massachusetts plays host to three different music festivals, all billed as prime destinations for the traveling music fan, and all organized to be as family friendly as possible.

Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival sets up shop at Mass MoCA in North Adams June 26-28. Also that weekend, roots rocker and Northampton native Stephen Kellogg brings his Fifth Annual Family Barbecue to his former hometown. And finally, July 10-12, the Green River Festival returns to the grounds of Greenfield Community College.

“I think there wasn’t any other option,” said Wilco bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Stirratt, when asked during a recent interview about the importance of the Solid Sound Festival being family friendly. “Lots of our fans have kids.”

Though held roughly every other year since its debut in 2010, the Solid Sound Festival is notable for more than just its accommodating attitude towards children. Being staged in and around the walls of a world-class contemporary art museum certainly helps the festival’s profile. And of course, there’s the fact that Solid Sound was founded and continues to be organized by a band instead of an organization or group of promoters.

“The idea of the festival dates back to 2008 when Wilco performed at Tanglewood, and the region was so welcoming,” says Deb Bernardini, who works as part of Wilco’s press team.

Since Tanglewood had such a packed schedule at the time, Jeff Tweedy and company were forced to look elsewhere for a venue to suit their future plan of finding a place where Wilco and its side-projects could perform over the course of a weekend. After settling on Mass MoCA as a location, the group has seen a consistent rise in attendance with each additional running of Solid Sound, including over eight thousand tickets sold for the event in 2013. But that success hasn’t stopped the band from experimenting with what activities to offer festival goers.

For example, in addition to music, Solid Sound also showcases a comedy stage, which in past years has featured appearances by Kristen Schaal,Hannibal Burress, Wyatt Cenac and many more. Comic and author John Hodgman, who appeared at the 2011 Solid Sound Festival, acts as host for the comedy stage and has even joined the staff, acting as an on-going collaborator.

Circus SmirkusPerhaps in a nod to the festival’s already “carnival-like” vibe, the Vermont-based Circus Smirkus has been added to the Solid Sound lineup for 2015. And, as always, a collection of special attractions will be featured alongside Mass MoCA’s own unique exhibits, giving attendees a look inside Wilco’s history and career.

Says Bernardini, “There are exhibits created by and pertaining to Wilco that can only be seen at Solid Sound including an interactive, fan-sourced Wilco timeline featuring ephemera, photos and recollections, as well as an opportunity for fans to stand on a recreated Wilco stage, complete with Wilco instruments, gear and stage backdrop.”

If that’s not enough reason to make the trip to northwestern Mass., there’s always the beauty of the area itself to appreciate and explore.

“With Wilco, we’ve been to a lot of festivals, big and small, and Solid Sound is sort of set apart by the fact that it’s in a really industrial immediate setting, nestled in the lush Berkshires,” concluded Stirratt. “You’re surrounded by brick and steel, but the green hills are right up against you. There really isn’t anywhere quite like North Adams.”

Conversely, according to former Paradise City resident Stephen Kellogg, there’s also no place quite like home. Though 2015 marks the first year Kellogg is bringing his Family Barbecue to Northampton, the delay has done little to diminish the love he has for the area that helped launch his career.

During a phone interview in May, Kellogg said, “When I think about my adventure, my arc through music, it all comes from Western Mass and Northampton.”

Stephen Kellogg (Photo courtesy of IHEG)

Stephen Kellogg (Photo courtesy of IHEG)

Whether logging time as an employee with the Iron Horse Music Group or meeting his fellow Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers’ band mates during his time at UMass Amherst, the facts seem to back up Kellogg’s claim. It just took a few years for the musician to work out the logistics of bringing his own brand of music festival back home.

Conceived of as an answer to the question, “What would I want to do with my favorite bands?” The inaugural SK Family Barbecue was held in 2011 in Connecticut. Featuring performances by Kellogg and the Sixers, the aforementioned barbecue, as well as a variety of field games like the three-legged race, a water balloon toss, the egg on the spoon and more, the basic elements of the festival appeared to be in place. However, subsequent editions of the gathering have undergone a continual evolution.

“Well, the thing is I’m not an event planner. I’m a musician,” laughed Kellogg. “We’ve made mistakes over the years, and probably one of the things that my friend who runs a really successful festival over in the U.K. said is, ‘The most important thing Stephen, is to keep the same location and to keep the same weekend every year.’ Well, we’ve done it five years and we’ve been in three locations, and we have almost never fallen on the same weekend. So, I get an F there for following the road map for how to have a successful festival.”

“But,” he added. “That’s always the biggest challenge because you pick a weekend, you pick a location…and I wanted to do it in Northampton this year because I thought this is where I got my start. If I was going to see one of my favorite artists, I think it would be interesting to go back to see where they began their career and kind of get to scope that out.”

To that end, not content to just play music and grab some burgers with his fans, Kellogg has also incorporated a trivia game show into the list of barbecue activities, so attendees can learn more about him and his music. Additionally, for the first time this year, he’ll be offering a guided walking tour of Northampton, so festival goers can check out some of his old local haunts.

Kellogg said, “I think people will enjoy it, not just because it’s me, but because it’s a chance to see the town and it’s such an amazing town.”

Another local connection Kellogg is mining for his barbecue this year is musical talent. In addition to playing solo during a pair of scheduled concerts over the weekend, Kellogg will perform alongside Chris Culos of the band O.A.R., as well as Pioneer Valley musician Dennis Crommett, who Kellogg describes as playing, “in like 20 bands there in town.”

Appropriately enough, one of Crommett’s bands Spanish For Hitchhiking released its latest album, Night Alerts, in April, which included a song called “Make It Count.”

Featuring lyrics like, “It takes time / to grow this from a seed,” the number brings to mind a ready-made analogy for the SK Family Barbecue. It may have taken five years for Kellogg to bring such an event to his hometown, but the experience – kids, families, music, and all – seems to be right where he wants it to be.

“We could grow it into more, but it would become something else. It would be a different thing,” Kellogg said. “The goal is to keep it intentionally intimate because I want the people that want to be part of this sort of intimate experience to be there. I’d rather give 225 people a weekend they’ll never forget, than 500 or 600 people just a cool summer concert.”

Lucius performs at the Green River Festival 2014 at Greenfield Community College in Greenfield MA.

Lucius performs at the Green River Festival 2014 at Greenfield Community College (Photo credit: Doug Mason)

Speaking of cool summer concerts, the Green River Festival is no longer one of the best kept secrets in Western Mass. Named one of 2015’s 50 Must-See Music Festivals by Rolling Stone, Green River has achieved national acclaim. However, to hear Jim Olsen, head of Signature Sounds Recordings which took over management of Green River in 2014 tell it, the event still possesses a unique local charm that can hook newcomers and delight festival veterans alike.

During an interview in May he said, “The Green River Festival feels like a music festival merged with a really great neighborhood block party. People tend to come in groups with the kids – 10 and under get in free – friends and family. You bump into your co-workers, friends you haven’t seen in a while and you meet new friends. I even know several couples who met at the festival. Everyone is there for a good time. When you add three stages of world class music and the best local food, beer, crafts and great kids’ activities, it just gets better.”

While bigger and better might be Green River’s calling cards at present, its humble beginnings tell a story of slow progression and hard-earned success.

“The festival was started 29 years ago when two separate events were held on consecutive weekends at Greenfield Community College,” recalled Olsen. “The first was a fifth birthday concert for local radio station WRSI featuring NRBQ and 10,000 Maniacs. The following weekend was the first Up Country Hot Air Balloon Fair presented by the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. Over the next few years the balloon festival started presenting music artists as well. It took many years for the festival to grow into the large event it has become.”

Hot air balloons are still a big attraction at the Green River Festival, and the sight of dozens of the crafts soaring through the sky around Greenfield and beyond on a warm summer day is often a highlight of the season. But festival attendees don’t have to keep look far for other activities to draw their interest.

This year’s Green River Festival will also feature circus performers, Frisbee trick dogs and a three-hole Frisbee golf course, a swimming area, a musical instrument petting zoo, a Mardi Gras style parade through the festival grounds, and more. Those wishing to check out The Maker’s Market can get their fill of local crafts, but tying everything together is the opportunity to hear a variety of great music.

TuneYards_2 (Credit Holly Andres)

Tune-Yards (Photo credit: Holly Andres)

Over 40 bands are scheduled to play over the course of the weekend. Acts like Tune-Yards will bring a more experimental sound, while others like Antibalas and Red Baraat will showcase different styles of world music. Of course, since Rolling Stone cited Green River’s   “relaxed, guitar-centric vibe where you’ll more likely spot a fiddle than a turntable,” the spotlight is still on roots-based acts like Steve Earle and The Dukes as well as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which should have no problem entertaining the five to six thousand people expected to pass through the festival gates daily.

Olsen said, “I think the way Green River Festival is different is that it has a really special kind of energy. I think it’s due to the fact that it doesn’t have a giant audience or huge, crowded campgrounds and the hassle factor of so many of the big festivals. Everyone is there for the day only and are there to enjoy themselves. It’s just such a great atmosphere.”

Indeed, atmosphere is a word used often to describe, not just music festivals, but also any location or gathering that elicits observable feelings and emotions. Details can be forgotten, and events can lose their vibrancy to time and distance. But the memories that stick are the products of atmosphere. Fill up a dozen scrapbooks or download a thousand images, yet you’ll probably still always be chasing the vibe of a sunny summer afternoon, when the wind turned just right and music played from a stage hit you like a wave, cresting over your shoulders before receding from the present and into the past.

“As we become a more wired, less connected society, these kinds of events are more important than ever,” Olsen mused. “A festival is place to go to connect with your people, sharing something you love in real time.”

Solid Sound Festival featuring Wilco, John Hodgman, NRBQ and more, June 26-28, $50-149, Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, (413) 664-4481, www.solidsoundfestival.com.

Stephen Kellogg’s Fifth Annual Family Barbecue featuring field games, trivia game show, children’s concert, and two nights of music with performances by Stephen Kellogg, Chris Culos (O.A.R.), Dennis Crommett (Spanish For Hitchhiking) and more, June 26-28, $125, Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, www.iheg.com/iron_horse, as well as other various locations in and around Northampton, www.stephenkellogg.com.

Green River Festival featuring Steve Earle, Tune-Yards, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and more, July 10: gates open at 5 p.m.; July 11: gates open at 12 p.m. and balloons launch at 6 p.m.; July 12: balloons launch at 6 a.m. and gates open at 12 p.m.., free/ kids, $20-100/ general, Greenfield Community College, One College Dr., Greenfield, (413) 341-3317, www.greenriverfestival.com.

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Lady Lamb’s “After” Has Cinematic Roots

Lady Lamb (Photo credit Shervin Lainez)

Lady Lamb (Photo credit Shervin Lainez)

Lady Lamb

After

(Mom + Pop)

Release date: 3/3/15

It’s part of pop culture lore that Quentin Tarantino got his start working in a video store. Turns out, that watching innumerable films and critiquing customer choices was all the training he needed to become a famous director. You can see the results in his movies too. Each finished product is a cinematic vista with scope, detail, and enough humor to sometimes distract from all the turbulent goings-on. The same characteristics can be attributed to indie musician Lady Lamb as well.

Formerly known as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, Maine native Aly Spaltro, also got her start working in a video store. However, instead of turning her focus to film, Spaltro used her night shift time at the shop to write and record music. Her initial output, a collection of lo-fi recordings and demos, shows the unmistakable stamp of this time period.

Early tracks like “Bird Balloons” and “Crane Your Neck,” each eventually re-recorded for Spaltro’s 2013 full-length debut Ripley Pine, are howling confessionals that unfold like short films. The mood of each song changes nearly as often as the chords wrung from the guitar they’re played upon, telling unique stories that are filled with the kind of observations made by someone who once spent long hours surrounded by aisle after aisle of Hollywood fare and indie flicks.

Now, much like Tarantino with his latest works “Django Unchained” and “Inglourious Basterds,” Spaltro strives to create her own epic on her new album After.

Opening number “Vena Cava” gives a taste of this new ambition. Beginning sparsely with only Spaltro’s voice and guitar heard for nearly a minute, the tune suddenly explodes to life with drums and distortion. Though titled after a vein responsible for transporting blood to the heart, the song appears to express an inner turmoil that is more than skin deep.

“I know already how much TV will fail to comfort me in your absence,” the lyrics go. “It’s as though the nothing never was / As everything will do just what it does.”

Is Spaltro speaking to a lover she knows will leave her? How appropriate that the vena cava is connected to the heart. Matters felt this deeply never fail to evoke emotions in one of our most important organs.

After such a hard-hitting introduction, the rest of After starts to unfurl itself with clever touches hidden throughout. Horns and background vocals emerge in the mix on “Violet Clementine.” Handclaps and synth samples populate “Spat Out Spit” and “Penny Licks.” Even a sly nod to Spaltro’s past is made with a song named after many a movie-goers snack of choice “Milk Duds.”

Watch the official lyric video for “Spat Out Spit” here

Still, amidst all the experimentalism and forays into straight-up pop, the foundation of After rests in the detailed prose making up the album’s lyrics. Nowhere is this fact more evident than in what could be labeled the record’s centerpiece “Sunday Shoes.”

As hauntingly barebones as some other tracks are stuffed with sound, “Shoes” is a bittersweet poem told over solitary finger-picked guitar that relates the tale of children being eaten by wolves. Harsh right? Yet, while not shying away from some graphic detail, the song also evolves into a somber meditation on death itself and what happens after we die.

Spaltro sings, “You will be laid to rest by gentle hands, and you will be sorely missed / by your mother and your father and you will become your most favorite color.”

It’s an inspiring thought isn’t it? Once dead you will be reborn as a color. Colors make up the world around us, in shades, in shadows, and can mix with other colors to create wondrous new combinations. Aly Spaltro may have dropped the “Beekeeper” from her moniker, but she’s been busy in her own hive turning out a finished product channeling past, present and future, almost like a movie script.

Video stores may be virtually extinct, but their influence lingers, just like After’s bite.

Lady Lamb with openers Rathborne and Great Smokey, April 4, 8 p.m., $13-15, Pearl Street Nightclub, 10 Pearl St., Northampton, (413) 584-7771, http://www.iheg.com/pearl_street_main.asp.

For more information on Lady Lamb or to see future tour dates please visit www.ladylambjams.com.

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Iron and Wine Opens the Vaults for “Archive Series Volume No. 1”

Iron & Wine (Photo courtesy of Iron & Wine)

Iron & Wine (Photo courtesy of Iron & Wine)

Iron & Wine

Archive Series Volume No. 1

(Black Cricket Recording Co.)

Release date: 2/24/15

Dubbed as “the first in a series of releases pulled from tapes found in the back corners of closets and dusty shoe boxes – long neglected, but never forgotten,” the newest release from indie folk artist Iron & Wine (aka Sam Beam) is an engaging look at the early output of a musician who has never had a problem displaying intimacy.

Like many listeners, this writer’s first exposure to Iron & Wine was through Beam’s cover of the Postal Service song “Such Great Heights,” which, though recorded in 2002, gained widespread recognition from its inclusion on the soundtrack to the film “Garden State” in 2004. The track was a standout even amidst a collection of songs meant to convey a sense of emotional turmoil and a search for meaning. The number also featured what would soon become hallmarks of the Iron & Wine sound – hushed vocals, gentle acoustic guitar, and an aching lo-fi delivery.

Though Beam’s work later evolved due to the involvement of other band mates during the recording process and through collaborations with the southwestern rock band Calexico, all of the hallmarks mentioned above are present in the songs making up Archive Series.

Opening number “Slow Black River,” is a folk-leaning lament recorded at home by Beam on four-track cassette and which features slowly picked banjo alongside the familiar guitar. Lyrics focus on the passage of time, providing a proper introduction to the material that follows.

“Eden” and “Minor Piano Keys” each contain allusions to Beam’s upbringing in the Bible belt with the former referencing apples and a garden, while the latter paints a picture of a lonely woman who “prays for a soldier boy” far away and suffering “under the thumb of the Lord.”

Much like on Iron & Wine’s debut full-length, The Creek Drank the Cradle, which was recorded around the same time as the numbers appearing on Archive Series, popular touchstones like birds and scenes from the South pop up repeatedly. Instrumentation varies little from the already mentioned banjo and the occasional sighing slide guitar, which provide the requisite twang underneath delicate finger-picking and acoustic strums.

Since before he adopted the Iron & Wine moniker Beam only made music to be heard by his family, it is little surprise to hear his sister, Sarah, provide backing vocals to tracks like “The Wind Is Low,” “Sing Song Bird,” and “Wade Across the Water.” Each song is lent a down-home quality by the sisterly presence, and is seemingly tossed off in such an easygoing fashion that the melodies appear more as organic outgrowths from the sibling’s interaction than as the product of well-executed songwriting.

Watch the trailer for “Dreamers and Makers are my Favorite People,” featuring Iron & Wine here:

If there’s any complaint about the collection of songs on Archive Series, it is that some are more finished works than others. Some tunes end abruptly or before a complete payoff is reached. But there is more than enough to keep longtime fans and first-time listeners happy. In fact, if Beam keeps unearthing and releasing cuts on par with the best of that found here many will start to wonder why he kept such gems locked up in the vaults to begin with.

For more information on Iron & Wine please visit www.ironandwine.com.

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Band Under the Stairs – The Ambiguities Return with Basement Suite

Basement Suite album release poster

Basement Suite album release poster

In 1976, the Ramones charged out of New York City proclaiming, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement.”

“There’s something down there,” sang lead singer Joey, with a delivery that illustrated his reluctance and dread.

Now almost 40 years later, Greenfield band The Ambiguities, founded by local artist and musician Daniel Hales, is asking listeners to bottle up their fears and follow as the group opens up some cellar doors and plunges headlong into a subterranean quest on its newest album Basement Suite.

The journey begins with “Hungover Dragon.” Mixing lyrics about psychic wizards and the aforementioned dragon (which is trapped inside the body of a drunk) with a slowly unfolding rhythm, the track is a fitting entry point. But Basement Suite isn’t all about fantasy and things that go bump in the night.

“Ambiguity Stew” is a short, funky blast that samples the intro from “It’s Live Over Here” by Luther Rabb complete with the crackling playback of an old vinyl record. The song is only 50 seconds long, but still manages to fit in a bevy of lines including a rhyme that pairs mention of ‘80s rapper Tone Loc with the phrase hard-boiled yolk.

Singer/ master of ceremonies Hales culled inspiration from his day-job as a teacher for some of the lyrics for another short tune, “X Formation.” Riding along with finger-snaps and distant drum sounds, the song will remind listeners of the type of schoolyard chants or taunts that pop up during Double Dutch games complete with diss-filled language and bratty attitude.

There is no sign of childhood shenanigans, however, on Basement Suite’s moody title track. Unfolding through three parts over nearly seven minutes, the composition conjures some of the dread that Joey Ramone sang about in the ‘70s.

As the suite begins, Hales’ voice slowly emerges from electronic beats beckoning listeners to, “Come on down into my basement” and “Breathe in the mold spores.”

Though these lines and the remaining lyrics to “Basement Suite” repeat themselves, the delivery evolves. Hales’ vocals transform from a lonely croon to a distorted cat-call filled with menace. A mixture of sounds bubble up – solitary guitar, whining noise, and distant singing. Liner notes for the album even list piano, violin, and a drum-like instrument called a tambo as being used over the course of the composition.

Watch the video for the “Basement Suite” by The Ambiguities here:

After venturing through such an unpredictable soundscape, the impact of Basement Suite’s final number is all the more startling. “When It’s Time To Go” takes an almost country-like turn with electric guitar twangs providing the accent to Hales’ shouts. Sample lyrics include, “You gotta split before you start talking shit,” and “You gotta say later before you start talking like a hater.”

The message of such a song, some would argue, is pretty clear – know when to leave, know when to stop, or just know when to get when the getting is good. It’s a message both The Ambiguities and Basement Suite understand. Neither the band nor the record overstays its welcome. In fact, no matter what Joey Ramone sang about in ’76, there just might be a few listeners who will want to return to the basement Hales and company have created again and again. There’s something down there all right, but it’s not something to be feared. It’s something future searchers will want to explore.

The Ambiguities “Basement Suite” release party with Rebel Base, January 31, 9:30 p.m., $3/ includes free CD, The Rendezvous, 78 3rd Street, Turners Falls, (413) 863-2866, www.rendezvoustfma.com.

For more information on The Ambiguities and Rebel Base please visit www.theambiguities.bandcamp.com and www.facebook.com/pages/Rebel-Base.

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Four More Years! Four More Years!

Nixon cutoutFour years – the space between Olympic Games, the duration of the average college career, or the amount of time some bands take to record and release a new album. If you, dear reader, told me four years ago that I would still be writing this blog in 2015, I would’ve labeled you a nutter. No way could I come up with four year’s worth of material. I’m not that inspired, and maybe that’s true, we could argue that point over a drink sometime.

But Northeast Underground is alive and kicking in the New Year, and looking back there have been moments of great joy. There have been moments of disappointment too, indeed not every freelancer can fit every topic they want to write about into their schedule, and not every freelancer is able to land every interview they try for or cover every story that grabs their attention.

Focus over a four year span can become diluted. Just ask your typical college student. Yet, sheer perseverance, perhaps, deserves respect. For every stubborn reader who read along and shared words of encouragement on a blog post or two (or a dozen, but who’s counting?), and for every interview subject who stuck with this writer’s process in order to one day see their name in a story online (like, on the World Wide Web, man, gnarly and far out), there are not enough thank yous.

Obligatory acknowledgement too of the continued support offered by the Valley Advocate for hosting Northeast Underground on the paper’s website. What started as a fun side project was given a significant boost in profile by joining forces with such a venerable alt-weekly. The carte blanche approach employed by the paper’s staff has allowed a freedom to this blog that I hope translates when seemingly random subjects or asides are tackled and/ or included in certain posts.

In this remaining space, I posit a thought or two (or three) for the future. First, change is inevitable. You’re reading this post now on a completely redesigned website, which is worlds apart from the one this blog started contributing to four years ago. Go with the flow. Second, each new day begets another day on its heels. You, dear reader, like the material shared here, are different somehow every day. Accept the difference. And lastly, I don’t know. Meditate, workout more, or start a new hobby for Chrissake. This blog won’t help you lose those extra 10 pounds you put on over the last year, but reading what’s written here sure beats going on a diet.

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Northeast Underground’s Best Albums of 2014

2014 was an unpredictable year for music.

Female artists like Taylor Swift, Iggy Azalea, and Ariana Grande ruled the charts (okay, maybe that wasn’t too unpredictable). Foo Fighters rolled the dice with their most ambitious record yet. And U2 invaded your iTunes (now THAT was unexpected). In fact, the only constant for listeners in 2014 was being surprised. And here at Northeast Underground there was just as much shock and amazement as anywhere else.

Whether you’ve already heard any of the albums listed below or are reading about them here for the first time, this blog hopes that you’ll at least enjoy reading about its selection of some of the best albums of 2014 ( in no particular order). With any luck, some choices will surprise you too.

Wicked Nature album coverThe Vines

Wicked Nature

(Wicked Nature Music)

As recently as 2011, this blog started to sour on The Vines. After several lackluster albums, the writing on the wall seemed to state that group leader Craig Nicholls, after weathering personal turmoil and migration from one record label to another, was content merely to release the same set of songs over and over again. Now, seemingly reinvigorated after reforming as a three-piece with new band members Lachlan West and Tim John, The Vines and Nicholls appear ready to realize long-held ambitions. You see, back in 2002 Nicholls was quoted as saying that he wanted to release a double-album as his group’s debut. Management pressure and clearer heads prevailed at the time, but here, 12 years later, Nicholls gets his wish. Coming in at a whopping 22 tracks, Wicked Nature is not just a dream come true for The Vines, but for fans of the band as well, since it was members of the group’s diehard audience who helped fund much of the recording of the record via contributions to PledgeMusic.com. The end result is a sprawling, yet concise, distillation of what made many fall in love with The Vines in the first place. Album single “Metal Zone” opens with Nicholls’ echoed vocals before erupting into catchy riffing played over thundering drums. Elsewhere, “Anything You Say,” and “Girl I Want” are blasts of ‘60s-inspired pop, while “Psychomatic” and “Everything Else” pull from the Kurt Cobain songbook of distorted rage. Far from being just another comeback album, Wicked Nature is also a record with a message. “Green Utopia,” “Killin the Planet,” and the album’s own title track all share warnings about, of all topics, global warming and the potential disaster it means for our planet. As unlikely a spokesman Nicholls might make at this point in his career, it’s a pleasant surprise to see him pick up his pen again with one eye on the stars and both feet firmly on the ground.

Foo Fighters

Sonic Highways

(Roswell/ RCA)

The Foo Fighters’ eighth studio album is more than just another rock record. Instead, “Sonic Highways” is one of the most ambitious musical projects in recent memory. Eight tracks recorded in eight different cities nationwide. This is the concept behind “Sonic Highways.” And the results are startling. Bruising opening number “Something From Nothing,” recorded by the band at Electrical Audio studios under the watchful eye of alternative rock iconoclast Steve Albini features Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen and evolves from a finger-picked intro to a near-metal blowout that also includes references to blues heroes Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. Track two, “The Feast and the Famine” is an homage to Grohl’s punk influenced youth in and around Washington, D.C. using stop-start riffs and propulsive drumming to craft a soundscape that feels like a rallying cry. Foo Fighters stretch out more on the record’s latter tunes with the final two songs both breaking six minutes. The finale even clocks in at over seven. Whether this epic-like approach is due to some particular inspiration that welled up in the city each track was recorded in or was sparked by some other factor, there’s no denying the finished product. Any album that can merge the influence and appearance of artists as diverse as Cheap Trick, Bad Brains, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and more, is worthy of its description as “a love letter to the history of American music.” Listeners shouldn’t tuck such a treasure away in a box.

Watch the Foo Fighters video for the song “In the Clear” from the album “Sonic Highways” and featuring the Preservation Hall Jazz Band here:

Angel Olsen

Burn Your Fire For No Witness

(Jagjaguwar)

jag246.11183Angel Olsen used to steal the spotlight as a backing singer for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (aka Will Oldham). Then with the release of her solo debut Half Way Home, the singer/ songwriter stepped into her own. Now with her sophomore album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen seems ready to set the whole stage aflame. Opening track, “Unfucktheworld” plays like a somber warning. The song’s instrumentation is minimal. Repeated acoustic guitar strums make up the entire foundation for Olsen’s echoed vocals to glide over, and the impression left is that of a spurned lover (or artist) coming to the realization that they must strive for self-reliance in order to survive. “Hi Five” continues to drive home the theme of individual responsibility. Taking inspiration from Hank Williams for the introductory line, “I feel so lonesome I could cry,” the track also incorporates a distorted garage-like stomp that swings like a country song. By constantly swaying from tender acoustic numbers to more indie rock styled rave-ups, Burn Your Fire For No Witness seems perched on the edge between two trains of thought, and the album somehow makes haunting magic out of this indecision.

Sharon Van Etten

Are We There

(Jagjaguwar)

Despite being named after a refrain familiar to anyone who’s ever embarked on a road trip, Van Etten’s latest release already knows the answer to the question it’s asking. While on 2012’s Tramp the sound of Van Etten’s music leaned heavily on lush orchestration, giving the final result a cohesive albeit at times insular feel, this new record seems to relish its own grandeur. Opening track, “Afraid of Nothing” sets the tone. Over rolling piano and distant drums the song builds slowly as if pinned musically to Van Etten’s wish for the day to come when she and a companion, “hide from nothing.” When the next number, “Taking Chances,” begins with more pronounced drums and Van Etten’s own echoed harmony, an astute listener might be tempted to start taking the song titles on Are We There at face value. By the time the sound of horns crops up on “Tarifa,” Van Etten’s spell seems to be in full effect. She even strips back some of the production for the piano ballad “I Love You But I’m Lost,” harkening back to the more intimate sound of her 2010 effort Epic, and never misses a beat. “People say I’m a one-hit wonder,” Van Etten sings on the country-tinged closing number “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.” Then she ponders, “But what happens when I have two?”

Watch the Sharon Van Etten video for “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” from the album “Are We There” here:

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Wig Out at Jagbags

(Matador)

Stephen Malkmus is still a California kid at heart. Though the former Pavement frontman’s latest album with his band the Jicks, was recorded overseas in Berlin, the record’s lyrics remain rife with references to the West Coast. Whether talking about grooving to the Grateful Dead on “Lariat” or extolling the virtues of punk rock in the valley on “Rumble at the Rainbow,” Malkmus’ words inspire repeated images of laid-back Cali slackers getting down on every beach from Redondo to Santa Monica. And that sunny vibe doesn’t end with the lyric sheet. Musically, the sixth studio album from the Jicks summons up many of the same comparisons lobbed at its predecessor, 2011’s Mirror Traffic. Much like on that previous album, Malkmus and company forgo extended jams to slot one concise pop gem after another on to the disc’s just over 40 minute running time. Employing trebly fret runs, bright melodies and bouncing rhythms, many tracks drift pleasantly by anchored only by eminently hummable choruses and clever couplets. Sudden forays into hazy psychedelic breakdowns, when they occur, seem to exist only to keep listeners on their toes. Observant fans will even be able to spot moments inspired by such staples of ‘70s rock radio as The Eagles (see the peaceful, easy noodling on “Houston Hades”) and Chicago (the horns on “Chartjunk”), proving once and for all that Malkmus clearly has no problem wearing his nostalgia on his sleeve.

Watch the Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks video for “Cinnamon and Lesbians” from the album “Wig Out at Jagbags” here:

Brian Jonestown Massacre

Revelation

(A Records)

BJM - Revelation album coverAnton Newcombe, founder and leader of psychedelic rock band the Brian Jonestown Massacre, has never been shy about mixing spiritual overtones with his music. Whether penning song lyrics that mention Jesus, God and even the Devil, or describing his own creative process with a mystical aura, Newcombe has always seemed like a songwriter with one eye on the otherworldly. Now on his newest record, and first to be solely recorded and produced at his own studio in Berlin, Germany, the indie rocker who once sang of praying to “to Buddah, to Allah, and Jim [Jones],” has crafted a song cycle as prophetic as it is apocalyptic. Featuring vocals sung in Swedish by musician Joachim Alhund, the opening track on RevelationVad Hände Med Dem?” is a bracing introduction. Rapid-fire drums push the song forward relentlessly as Alhund’s words bubble up in the mix like directions from a tour guide. Elsewhere, “What You Isn’t” pays a hazy nod to such past BJM cuts as “You Have Been Disconnected” and “Open Heart Surgery” from 2001’s Bravery, Repetition and Noise. The song’s rhythm simmers instead of boils, creating a foundation for lines about walking “through the fire and the fear” and breaking down the “walls of glass.” For those with a soft spot for older Massacre material, a welcome return on Revelation is made by Newcombe’s use of guitar and other classic rock instrumentation. Where records like 2012’s Aufheben and 2010’s Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? traded liberally in electronic-aided grooves and beats, here acoustic strums and loose electric leads star prominently, adding swaying layers to several numbers jam-like feel.

Iceage

Plowing Into The Field Of Love

(Matador)

Iceage - Plowing Into The Field Of Love coverIceage returned in 2014 with a full-length release that, according to press materials, is “about seeing, learning, and rejecting things, in a cycle that repeats and builds.” The sequence begins with “On My Fingers.” Stuttering drums back singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt as he almost croons about the “second coming” and “unrelated hell.” Track two, “The Lord’s Favorite,” continues the religious allusions over an alt-country beat reminiscent of the band the Meat Puppets at its most acid-fried. But not every song hinges on faith. “Abundant Living” and “Cimmerian Shade” each tackle the issue of drunkenness from differing viewpoints. And throughout the rest of the album the impression is given that even though Iceage’s members are in their early twenties, their quick success has made them old before their time. The music reflects this growth too with piano and acoustic guitars heightening the melancholy of certain moments. And nowhere does everything come together more fittingly than on the finale of a title track. Rønnenfelt begins the song with words of warning from a cynical man looking out his mansion window. The twist is he’s not bragging. As horns, guitar and marching drums rise around him, the lonely figure may shout for “bootlickers to stand aside,” but his pleas are meaningless. “They will place me in a hearse,” Rønnenfelt shouts, repeating the final word like a mantra before all sound cuts out. It’s an ending full of release, and after spending 45-plus minutes “seeing, learning, and rejecting,” many will need to catch their breath before starting such a record over again.

Lake Street Dive

Bad Self Portraits

(Signature Sounds)

One of the more notable, local-orientated music stories of 2014 centered on the release of the third album from the Brooklyn-based band Lake Street Dive. Though the group is not from Western Mass proper, its members have ties to the Bay State – joining forces after meeting as students at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston – and the band’s breakthrough record was released by Northampton’s own Signature Sounds Recordings. Merging a variety of styles to defy easy categorization, the album, much like one of its signature tracks, goes down smooth. Upon first listen, vocalist Rachael Price is the show-stopper, bringing soul and wit to her tour de force performance, which is augmented ably by LSD’s other members. Drummer Mike Calabrese brings the jazzy fills, bassist Bridget Kearney lays down rhythms worthy of her Motown and Paul McCartney fandom, and multi-instrumentalist Mike “McDuck” Olson handles both his guitar duties and horn playing with equal flair. Standout numbers like the aforementioned “You Go Down Smooth” and “Stop Your Crying” show off the group’s classically-trained roots. But room is also made for cuts like “Bobby Tanqueray,” which features crunchy riffing and theremin, and “What About Me,” which betrays traces of Lake Street Dive’s initial formation as a “free country band.” Influences abound, but the best compliment is perhaps that Bad Self Portraits is something wholly original and eminently enjoyable.

Watch Lake Street Dive perform “You Go Down Smooth” from the album “Bad Self Portraits” live on KEXP  here:

Bruce Springsteen

High Hopes

(Columbia)

High_Hopes_album_Bruce_SpringsteenFew artists exist who would commit to releasing a record of full of covers, outtakes, and re-imagined versions of songs from past albums and tours as a full-fledged studio album, and fewer still would be the artists with enough quality material in their vaults to make such a release a standout record in its own right. Fortunately for music fans, Bruce Springsteen is such an artist. On his 18th studio album, “The Boss” added Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello to the roar of the iconic E Street Band and brought new life to a variety of tracks that in lesser hands could’ve resembled a grab-bag of odds and sods. The merger of past and present is observed right away with Morello adding an effects-laden solo to the album-opening title number, which was originally recorded in 1995. “American Skin (41 Shots),” though written in 2000 in reference to the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo, saw revival as a timely anthem in 2014, gaining added poignancy by being featured on a record in a year when protests over similar events cropped up nationwide. Elsewhere, “Frankie Fell in Love” brings a light-hearted bar band vibe to the proceedings, while “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” sung as a duet by Springsteen and Morello, gets punched up into a dark rocker with near-metal guitar and pounding drums. By the time High Hopes closes with a cover of the band Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” listeners will likely marvel at Springsteen’s continual willingness to defy expectations and restlessly experiment both with his own tunes and those by others. Even after all these years he’s still unpredictable, and listeners are all the better for the uncertainty yet to come.

Pharrell Williams

Girl

(i Am Other/ Columbia)

Music fans were hard-pressed to avoid Pharrell in 2014. Still rolling from the success of his 2013 hits “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, the ever stylishly-hatted singer, songwriter, and producer popped up everywhere from awards shows to his new stint as a judge for the popular talent show “The Voice.” His hot streak continued with “Happy,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the animated film “Despicable Me 2,” and was also the first single from his second full-length studio album. The song’s music video, shot continuously over a 24 hour period, was a viral sensation. But more music soon found its way to the charts. Second single “Marilyn Monroe” featured a short orchestral string section and lyrics concerning the search for a perfect woman. “Come and Get It Bae” sported uncredited vocals from Miley Cyrus over funk guitar and hand clap percussion. And “Gust of Wind” included robotic contributions from the members of Daft Punk, who Pharrell appeared with at the 2014 Grammys for a performance that also included Stevie Wonder and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers. Those just familiar with Williams’ career working behind the scenes with artists like Britney Spears, Mystikal and Jay-Z amongst others, received Girl as a refreshing taste of his talent as an artist in his own right. Keeping everything positive his breezy mix of pop, soul, funk, and R&B ruled the radio in 2014 and might still for years to come.

Watch the Pharrell Williams video for “Happy” from the album “Girl” here:

***

Honorable Mentions: Jack White – Lazaretto, Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line, Coldplay – Ghost Stories, U2 – Songs of Innocence, Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal, Ty Segall – Manipulator, Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End, Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

That’s it for 2014. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Don’t forget to visit the Northeast Underground again in 2015. And check out more from the blog on YouTube and Twitter by clicking on the icons below:

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