Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Year in Music: Albums you might have missed in 2018

There are so many music titles released each year that it's easy for some of them to get overlooked. Below is a final quick look at a selection of 2018 albums that should be on the radar of music listeners with a variety of tastes...


photo by: Cybele Malinowski
(Cooking Vinyl)
Kelly's second consecutive studio album to debut at No. 1 in his native Australia, Nature continued the acclaimed Americana singer/guitarist's winning creative streak that has resulted in five releases in less than four years. All the songs here started as poems and are thematically linked to the natural world. Some were penned by Kelly; others are by Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Phillip Larkin. Nature kicks off strong with the upbeat, jangly "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" and is followed by a fine sinewy rocker, "With the One I Love" - easily standing among the veteran's best in a career that spans decades. The stately "With Animals" contains some thought-provoking lines about the possible benefits of living beside beasts: "They do not sweat and whine about their condition...they do not make me sick discussing their duty to God/Not one is dissatisfied." An atmospheric "Morning Storm" features backing vocalizations from Kelly's daughters Maddy and Memphis and baritone guitar by his nephew Dan. "Mushrooms" and "River Song" - the latter boasting a string quartet - are both quietly alluring. Finally, the album ends on a breezy note with "The Trees," as shimmering electric guitars, subtle Farfisa organ and Mellotron lead the way and Kelly harmonizes with Alice Keath.

Wouldn't it Be Great
(Sony Legacy)
Delayed a year due to health issues, Loretta Lynn finally returned with the pleasantly enjoyable
Wouldn't it Be Great, co-produced by daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash. It is comprised of songs either written or co-written by the Queen of Country Music. The title track is a poignant ballad inspired by Lynn's late husband, while the old school country of "Ruby's Stool" is feisty and fun (with the singer describing a "battle axe"). Two big hits from the past - "Don't Come Home A' Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)", "Coal Miner's Daughter" - are revisited in versions that don't stray much from the originals. Lynn also puts a new mandolin and violin-infused spin on "God Makes No Mistakes," first heard on the 2004 Grammy-winning Jack White-produced Van Lear RoseAll told, Lynn still remains in fine voice.
Forever Words - Johnny Cash
(Sony Legacy)
Also overseen by co-producer John Carter Cash, Forever Words is the audio companion to a book of the same name. The tribute album has an impressive array of country, rock and Americana artists setting unheard Johnny Cash poems, lyrics and letters to music. Standouts include Brad Paisley's heartfelt "Gold All Over the Ground," husband-and-wife duo Kacey Musgraves & Ruston Kelly's stark harmonies on "To June This Morning," the late Chris Cornell's haunting "You Never Knew My Mind," Roseanne Cash's compelling "The Walking Wounded," John Mellencamp's rousing "Them Double Blues" and Elvis Costello's orchestrated ballad "I'll Still Love You." Elsewhere, Kris Kristofferson & Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Jewel and The Jayhawks, among others, also contributed to the project.

True Meanings
(Warner Bros.)
Practically defining "pastoral," True Meanings found Weller adopting a more relaxed musical approach, utilizing string arrangements, orchestration and a singer/songwriter vibe straight outta the late 1960s/early 1970s. The Zombies' Rod Argent does a brief, but memorable Hammond organ solo on opening track "The Soul Searchers," while notable folk musicians Danny Thompson and Martin Carthy guest on "Come Along." Noel Gallagher adds harmonium to the Indian-sounding "Books" and Hammond organ to the subtle "White Horses" (Argent also plays Mellotron and piano). A good soundtrack to a lazy Sunday afternoon at the park.


Paul McCartney and Wings
Wild Life; Red Rose Speedway
The latest expanded and remastered 2CD titles in the Paul McCartney Archive Collection are Wild Life, the 1971 debut album from Wings and Red Rose Speedway, which arrived two years later. Wild Life is notable for the reggae cover of Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange" and a bonus disc featuring UK hit single "Give Ireland Back to the Irish." Red Rose Speedway, a chart topper in America, contains the No. 1 pop and adult contemporary ballad "My Love." The 18-song bonus disc is the real focal point, with UK hits/non-album cuts "Hi Hi Hi," "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Live and Let Die" and their respective B-sides. The latter is included in a group only, alternate take version and there are also three live songs. 


In 2015, RCA Records put out an Elvis Presley compilation where orchestral arrangements were added to hits and album tracks. It was a success, so RCA released more of them. This year, saw three more prominent acts giving a similar treatment to their catalog. 

Richard Carpenter produced, conducted the RPO at Abbey Road Studios in London and arranged all but one of the tracks on this album, which paired Karen Carpenter's original vocals, instrumental tracks and new orchestral backing. The result ups the already lush quotient on 1970s hits like "(They Long To Be) Close to You," "We've Only Just Begun," "Rainy Days And Mondays," "Top of the World," "Yesterday Once More," "Superstar" and more. 

Executive produced by Jerry Schilling (Elvis Presley), with orchestral arranging and conducting primarily handled by Sally Herbert, several of the group's classics soar higher than ever before here with new sweetening. Case in point: "Fun Fun Fun," "Don't Worry Baby," "In My Room" (now grander) and "Help Me Rhonda." Surprisingly, even "Kokomo" benefits from the revison (namely in the chorus). The treatment adds little though to the already big sounding "Good Vibrations." Other songs include "California Girls, "Wouldn’t It Be Nice," "God Only Knows," "Heroes And Villains." Beach Boy Bruce Johnston put it best when he said upon release that the new arrangements "added the beautiful fairy dust of the orchestra to what we already recorded. It’s another interpretation of us without losing the groundwork of us.”

Unchained Melodies
(Sony Legacy/Roy's Boys)
The follow-up to 2017's orchestrated A Love So Beautiful, Unchained Melodies features 15 songs that are mostly deep album cuts (a half dozen are from the singer's final two albums Mystery Girl and King of Hearts). The inclusion of “Walk On,” “Leah,” “Crawling Back,” “Blue Bayou,” “Danny Boy” and “California Blue” were the result of a fan poll. An alternate version of “Heartbreak Radio” is a virtual collaboration between Roy and rising young country music star Cam. Roy’s sons, wives and kids also contribute additional instrumentation and vocals. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

An interview with Tom Odell

Tom Odell is one of the more compelling singer/songwriters to emerge from England since the early 2010s. Discovered by Lily Allen, he put out debut album Long Way Down - which went to No. 1, sold more than 300,000 copies and spawned the top 10 single “Another Love” at home - in 2013.

Long Way Down also netted the young pop/rock pianist prestigious BRIT and Ivor Novello Awards. It wasn’t long before Odell’s emotional and poignant songs were regularly being heard in American television dramas like “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Blacklist,” “Reign” and “The 100.”

On excellent third album Jubilee Road, Odell stripped the production down slightly, so the music centered more on piano. He often took an observational lyrical approach (much like cited influences Elton John, Randy Newman and Bruce Springsteen), with some situations gleaned from former neighbors at an East London house. The results ended up being what the musician calls his most honest recording to date.

We caught up with Odell, 27, in Portland, Ore. amid a brief solo acoustic jaunt through North America.

Question: While looking over your past tour itineraries, I saw some far-flung locations like China and Russia listed last year. Was that your first time performing in those places?
Tom Odell: In China, we’ve done two tours now. One last year and one in 2014. It’s a really interesting place to tour and a very different experience from touring Europe or the States. Ultimately, I think what’s so fascinating is how universal music is - how it transcends languages and cultures. We were right at the center of China. I remember being some place where you wouldn’t expect people to know the music for miles and they knew it. I think that’s what’s so wonderful. We’ve gone so many places. We did our first show in Africa last year as well. I think we’ve done six of the seven continents now.

Q: You co-produced Jubilee Road with Ben Baptie, who worked on your first album. Did you want to be more “hands on” in the studio this time around?
TO: Yeah, I think that’s just the way I like to work. I trained [in classical piano] for many years and have a fairly good grip on music. I say that in terms of being different from being an artist. There’s a knowledge one has to have if they’re going to produce - understanding how harmony and rhythm works. It just feels natural for me to do that.
I was more involved than ever with this new album and I was playing, if not in the room, every single note. Every single bit of this album feels inherently mine. In some ways, that is quite indulgent, but this was the album I wanted to do that on. It feels very personal, this album.

Q: Was using less instrumentation a reaction to the dense soundscapes on your last album Wrong Crowd?
TO: I certainly wanted to get the song across. In some ways, it also focuses more on the piano and the drums and let the band I’ve played with for many years shine through. I think there was a [feeling of] ‘OK, we’re gonna really set some rules here.’
On all the tracks, it’s pretty much just the four-piece playing, if not just piano and vocal. I didn’t want it to be distracting. I wanted the production to not be the [first] thing that people remember. I wanted the thing that people remember to be the songs, the lyrics and the melodies. That’s ultimately what I want people to take away.

Q: Were many of the new songs initiated from a piano melody?
TO: Pretty much all of them. Whereas on the second album, there were a few songs written on guitar. I tend to write always a bit on guitar as a bit of a change. If I’m working on lyrics, I might play the song on guitar. But mostly on piano. A huge part was I felt that the songwriting was steered by the piano. The songs are as much about the vocal melodies as they are melodies immersed within the piano. Which is an interesting experience. I spent a huge amount of time in the studio really working on a piano part, much like one would a lyric or a melody. I spent a huge proportion of the time doing that.

Q: Hearing brass for the first time on some of these songs was a pleasant surprise. Even Dave Guy, trumpeter from The Dap-Kings, contributes. How did you decide to augment your sound with those type of instruments?
TO: I wanted a particular texture that would not be in the way but could help with the rhythm and with the harmony slightly. I’d never worked with horns before. It was completely unknown to me how they worked. That excited me - the idea of something new. I’d done quite a lot of work with strings, but I wanted to try something different. I’d say it’s very light, the horns. We recorded far more. I ended up taking a lot of them out. They were on a few other tracks. The one that probably inspired the whole thing was ‘You’re Gonna Break My Heart Tonight.’ I wanted this big saxophone solo. It felt like a very dramatic moment and when I wrote the song, I wrote that solo. I had it on the piano, but I knew I wanted it on the saxophone. It naturally ended up we put horns on the other tracks as well. I think if there hadn’t been a saxophone solo on ‘You’re Gonna Break My Heart Tonight,’ I’m not sure we would’ve ended up with them on the other tracks.

Q: There is applause on “Go Tell Her Now.” Was it recorded before an audience?
TO: The studio we recorded a lot of the album in is also a bar in East London. We were recording the song and we took the microphones outside and were recording people drinking. I thought it would be interesting. You can sort of hear the bar in the studio. It’s a little bit fake, but then it’s not, because they were there the same night when we recorded that.

Q: “Don’t Belong in Hollywood” immediately drew me in. At your September acoustic show in Los Angeles, you mentioned from the stage how it was about you “taking the piss” out of yourself. Are you singing about the price of fame on that one?
TO: In a light way, yeah. There’s a mix of humor and sincerity in that song. I’ve always been into very humorful writers such as Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson. Lots of English songwriters as well – Chris Difford from Squeeze. I wouldn’t say there’s often a lot of humor in my lyrics. I’m always trying to find that delicate balance. I feel I found it in that song. There’s humor to it in the sense of mocking myself for some almost Spinal Tap moments when you just fall into the stereotype of the singer/songwriter having success. It’s more making myself laugh.
Again, it’s coming back to this point in a lot of the songs, which is just be yourself…There’s a huge amount on this album that’s saying accept who you are. I hope I’m finally coming to that place. I noticed with a lot of people in their 20s, my friends as well, that’s one of the things that’s a big challenge. Some people have it early.

Q: How did you navigate the success of the first album and all the acclaim?
TO: I think I dealt with it quite well. I certainly don’t think I went off the rails. It did affect me. Undoubtedly, it would affect anyone. I pretty much have the same friends as I had before. I have a relatively balanced life when I’m away from the touring. I think that’s been similar since Day One. There were a few months when I really enjoyed the [music industry] parties. I learned very quickly that wasn’t why I got into this [business]. I don’t enjoy large groups of people. It was never particularly appealing to me. I value my friendships. I’m fortunate to have a good family as well. There’s no one in my life that would blow smoke up my arse. I’m not ever in a position where that would be apparent. I’m sure I have my moments…

Q: The title track on Jubilee Road is very picturesque, particularly the way you describe some of the characters. Have you always been inspired by songwriters like Chris Difford, Billy Joel, Bernie Taupin and Elton John?
TO: Massively. That’s really the music that got me into this mess in the first place [laughs]. Particularly ‘70s music. Observational songwriting, I love. I love lyrics. That’s increasingly the thing I’m drawn to in music, the words. I find that becoming the focus more and more within my music. Chris Difford was actually one of my tutors when I was at [BIMM Institute in] Brighton. He’s a good man. 

Q: Could you envision the song “Wedding Day” being played at people’s future nuptials?
TO: You know what? I do have a song that’s played at a shitload of weddings in the UK – ‘Grow Old with Me.’ People always come up to me and say they used it as their first dance or something. I weirdly don’t think that ‘Wedding Day’ would be used.

Q: Why?
TO: It’s melancholic and more observational. It mentions dead relatives and is more anticipating a wedding than celebrating one. To some degree, I actually wonder how much the song is about a wedding and perhaps how much more it’s about family. That song is really a devotion to my sister. I wrote it with open arms to her and telling how proud I am of her, which is probably something I haven’t ever said with words.

Q: How did Alice Merton, whose “No Roots” single topped the Billboard Alternative Songs chart in 2016, end up joining you to duet on “Half as Good as You?”
TO: I was a fan and she supported me [in Germany] last year. That’s how I got to know her music. Then when I was making the album, I had that song and it wasn’t a duet. I kept hearing her song ‘No Roots’ on the radio. I contacted her and said, ‘Do you want to do it? She said, ‘yeah.’’ She’s pretty amazing and fabulous. A real talent and dedicated to her music. It was nice to have another voice halfway through the album to break it up.

Q: Did you do it together in the studio?
TO: Yeah, we were together. Again, I’m old fashioned, I don’t like any of that recording by proxy.

Q: You’ve often had a gospel-type choir presence on your albums that gives the songs a joyous vibe. Jubilee Road has it too.
TO: Funnily enough, a lot on this album, it’s me and [drummer/backing vocalist/co-songwriter] Andy Burrows. We used some gospel singers on ‘Son of an Only Child.’ Maybe ‘China Dolls.’

Q: On your social media sites, you often share your current music playlist and reading material. Do you actually scan all the replies?
TO: Yeah. I have to say I’ve read quite a few books that have been recommended to me on social media. Totally. It’s a really wonderful thing. That shows you the drive behind why I share them because I want something in return. I really do. I’m a ferocious reader. I read, particularly at this stage of the process, when I’m traveling and touring, I lean very heavily on reading. Gets me through a lot of it. There’s a lot of waiting around in airports. I spent as much time packing my suitcase of clothes as selecting the few books I’m going to take on the road with me. I’m old fashioned. I do not like the Kindles or tablets. I like the printed page, the feel of the page, the physical thing I can hold. Sometimes, I write things in them as well. That wouldn’t really work with a tablet!

Q: You also spotlight charities that you’ve been involved with on your socials. Help Refugees [] seems to be the most important to you. Is that fair to say?
TO: Massively. We’ve done a lot of work with Help Refugees. I do as much as I can for them and support them. I visited a refugee camp in [Calais, France] a couple years ago. Since then, I’ve been doing what I can to help. That is still a big issue in the UK and Europe. It’s not going away.  


April 17 - Atlanta, GA - The Loft
April 18 - Carrboro, NC - Cat’s Cradle
April 19 - Philadelphia, PA - Theatre of Living Arts
April 20 - Washington, DC - 9:30 Club
April 23 - New York, NY - Irving Plaza
April 24 - Boston, MA - Brighton Music Hall
April 26 - Montreal, QB - Corona Theatre
April 27 - Toronto, ON - Phoenix Concert Theatre
April 29 - Cleveland, OH - House of Blues
April 30 - Chicago, IL - Thalia Hall
May 1 - Minneapolis, MN - Varsity Theatre
May 3 - Denver, CO - Bluebird Theatre
May 4 - Salt Lake City, UT - Grand Room
May 7 - Los Angeles, CA - El Rey Theatre
May 8 - San Francisco, CA - August Hall
May 10 - Portland, OR - Wonder Ballroom
May 11 - Vancouver, BC - Commodore
May 12 - Seattle, WA - Neptune

The Year in Music: Noteworthy reissues, compilations, live albums and soundtrack of 2018

If you're looking for ideas on how to spend a Christmas gift card or just taking advantage of year-end sales, here are some noteworthy music titles that came out in 2018...


The Cars
Shake it Up; Heartbeat City

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last spring, The Cars marked the occasion with expanded, remastered editions for platinum-selling Eighties releases Shake It Up and Heartbeat City. Each title includes rare and unreleased bonus tracks, illustrated booklets and liner notes by David Fricke, who conducted new interviews with surviving band members Ric Ocasek for Heartbeat City and David Robinson for Shake It Up. The former, produced by Robert John "Mutt" Lange, contains five top 40 hits, notably the Top 10 singles "Drive" and "You Might Think." Unreleased versions of "Why Can't I Have You" and "I Refuse," and the demo for "Drive" are among the seven bonus tracks. Shake It Up, producer Roy Thomas Baker, is notable for the big hit title track, "Since You're Gone" and "Think It Over." Unreleased tracks here are an early version of "Since You're Gone," the demo for "Shake It Up" and "Midnight Dancer."

Feeling Strangely Fine

Long before Dan Wilson was a Grammy-winning, in-demand songwriter for the likes of Adele, Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift, Halsey, Keith Urban and others, he led this Minneapolis alt-pop trio, whose sophomore album was its most successful. This 20th Anniversary deluxe edition of 
Feeling Strangely Fine features "Closing Time," which topped the modern rock radio chart in '98, two other minor hits ("Singing in My Sleep," "Secret Smile") and four B-sides off international CD singles that are equally solid ("Long Way from Home," "I’m a Liar," "Beautiful Regret," "Making a Plan"). Feeling Strangely Fine was among my top 10 best albums that year and still stands up today, due to Wilson's passionate songcraft and the gently rocking arrangements.


Lindsey Buckingham
The Best of - Solo Anthology
The former producer/guitarist/vocalist/songwriter for Fleetwood Mac reminds everyone that he crafted plenty of memorable material outside that classic rock group after going solo for good after 1987's Tango in the Night. The three-CD version of this compilation has studio, live and alternate versions of tracks from his six solo efforts and excellent 2017 duo album with The Mac's Christine McVie. His film work is represented by "Holiday Road" and "Dancin' Across The USA" (from 1983's National Lampoon's Vacation) and "Time Bomb Town" (1985's Back to the Future). There are live solo versions of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" and "Go Your Own Way," plus two solid new unreleased tracks ("Hunger," "Ride This Road").

Andy Gibb
The Very Best Of
If English pop singer Andy Gibb hadn't passed away in 1988, he would've been 60 years old this year. The collection’s 15 tracks include chart toppers, “I Just Want To Be Your Everything,” “Shadow Dancing” and “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” top 10 hits “An Everlasting Love,” “(Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away,” “I Can’t Help It” (featuring Olivia Newton-John) and “Desire,” Gibb’s collaboration with his brothers Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees. All the songs are culled from 1977’s platinum-certified Flowing Rivers, 1978’s platinum-certified Shadow Dancing, and 1980’s gold-certified After Dark.

Frank Sinatra
Baby Blue Eyes...May the First Voice You Hear Be Mine
Curated by daughter Tina Sinatra, the 20-song compilation was specifically geared toward children (not to mention their parents), as affirmed by titles like "Yes Sir, That’s My Baby," 
"It’s A Wonderful World," "Pocketful Of Miracles," "Jeepers Creepers," "How Cute Can You Be?," "A Baby Just Like You," "Hush-A-Bye-Island," "Cradle Song (Brahms Lullaby)" and more.

Soft Cell
Keychains and Snowstorms - The Singles
Keychains and Snowstorms is compiled from a 10-disc box set of the same name that prefaced the UK synth-pop duo's one-time-only reunion performance last September at London’s O2 Arena. This collection has all the best known UK hits from the '80s, including "What," "Bedsitter," "Torch," "Say Hello Wave Goodbye,” and the international chart topper "Tainted Love." Marc Almond and Dave Ball also recovened in the studio for the first time since 2002 to record two ace new tracks - "Northern Lights" and "Guilty ('Cos I Say You Are)."


Bohemian Rhapsody
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Queen fans who own the band's catalog will still want to pick up the hit soundtrack to the wildly successful film biopic since it boasts several rarities, namely the first album appearance of audio tracks from the band's legendary July 1985 performance at Live Aid. Other key selling points: the unreleased “Fat Bottomed Girls” live from Paris 1979; “Now I'm Here,” recorded on Christmas Eve 1975 at London's Hammersmith Odeon; the Freddie Mercury/Brian May duet “Love of My Life” from Rock in Rio '85 (previously only available on video). “We Will Rock You” is a hybrid studio and live version created for the film. “Don't Stop Me Now” features May's newly recorded guitar parts. “Doing All Right” was originally recorded by Smile, the pre-Queen band that featured May, drummer Roger Taylor and vocalist Tim Staffell. To recreate the original Smile version, Staffell reunited with his old bandmates at Abbey Road Studios to re-record it for soundtrack. All three sing lead vocals and took place almost 50 years after the original recording. For casual fans and newcomers, there are also more hits heard in the film.


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Live from the Ryman
(Thirty Tigers)

Primarily recorded during the group’s six sold out nights at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium in 2017, the live album features live versions of songs from their last three critically acclaimed, award-winning studio albums. Standouts include impassioned renditions of "If We Were Vampires," "Flying Over Water," "The Life You Chose" and the rocking "Super 8."

Frank Sinatra
Standing Room Only
The consummate entertainer is showcased during various eras of his performing career amid the 3CD set Standing Room Only, which was the recent subject of a PBS-TV pledge drive special. The three complete concerts include: January 28, 1966 - the second show with Count Basie at The Sands in Las Vegas (previously unreleased on CD); October 7, 1974 at Philadelphia’s Spectrum Arena (previously unreleased); October 24, 1987 at the Dallas Reunion Arena (previously unreleased in its entirety). The audio was newly remixed and the deluxe package includes a 30-page booklet with liner notes, rare and never-before-published photos.

photo: Henry Diltz
Neil Young
Roxy - Tonight's the Night Live; Songs for Judy
(Reprise; Shakey Pictures)
Young enthusiasts were treated to two fine concert recording from the vaults this year. First came Roxy - Tonight's the Night Live, recorded at the famed West Hollywood venue (which Young inaugurated) in September 1973. It features the first public performance of many songs that would later comprise the Tonight’s The Night album nearly two years later. The backing band was Ben Keith, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Nils Lofgren - known as the Santa Monica Flyers. Then there's Songs for Judy, an equally fascinating snapshot in time of live acoustic performances culled from various cities on Young's November 1976 solo tour. "No One Seems To Know" makes its album debut here. He also does mesmerizing stripped down takes on 1960s numbers like Buffalo Springfield's "Mr. Soul," "Here We Are In The Years" and "The Losing End."

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Year in Music: Best albums, singles and concerts of 2018

Here are my picks for best albums (not just favorites - these are ones that I felt were strong throughout), ranked in order, across all genres. They are followed by my top singles and concerts...

1. The Fratellis, "In Your Own Sweet Time"
2. The Wild Feathers, "Greetings from the Neon Frontier"
3. Tom Bailey, "Science Fiction"
4. Django Django, "Marble Skies"
5. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, "While We're at It"
6. Kacey Musgraves, "Golden Hour"
7. Anderson East, "Encore"
8. Christine & the Queens, "Christine"
9. Neko Case, "Hell-On"
10. The Decemberists, "I'll Be Your Girl"

Honorable Mention:

11. Manic Street Preachers, "Resistance is Futile"
12. Suede, "The Blue Hour"
13. Johnny Marr, "Call the Comet"
14. David Byrne, "American Utopia"
15. Brian Fallon, "Sleepwalkers"
16. The Vaccines, "Combat Sports"
17. Tom Odell, "Jubilee Road"
18. Rhett Miller, "The Messenger"
19. Roseanne Cash, "She Remembers Everything"
20. Simple Minds, "Walk Between Worlds"


1. Beck, "Colors"
2. David Byrne, "Everybody's Coming to My House"
3. Kacey Musgraves, "Space Cowboy"
4. Anderson East, "Girlfriend"
5. Death Cab for Cutie, "Gold Rush"
6. Mumford & Sons, "Guiding Light"
7. Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey, "The Middle"
8. Tom Odell, "If You Wanna Love Somebody"
9. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, "Ohio"
10. The Struts, "Body Talks"


photo: U2.COM
1. U2, The Forum, Inglewood
2. Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, House of Blues, Anaheim
3. Stray Cats, Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa
4. Simple Minds, The Orpheum, Los Angeles
5. Beck, Hollywood Bowl
6. Johnny Marr at Ohana Festival, Dana Point

7. Sugarland, Greek Theatre, Los Angeles
8. Trash Can Sinatras (acoustic), The Regent, Los Angeles
9. The Fixx, Coach House, San Juan Capistrano
10. Jason Isbell, Stagecoach Festival, Indio

Thursday, December 20, 2018

An interview with Rhett Miller of Old 97’s

photo: Big Hassle Media
Many bands who led the initial alt-country charge have fallen by the wayside, but Old 97’s - Rhett Miller (vocals/rhythm guitar), Ken Bethea (lead guitar), Murry Hammond (bass) and Philip Peeples (drums) – are still quite productive a quarter century after forming in Dallas.

The group has put out 11 studio albums. 2017’s impressive Graveyard Whistling included “Good with God,” an adult alternative radio hit duet with Brandi Carlile. Meanwhile, Miller boasts five solo efforts. Last month, the guys added to both those discographies with Old 97’s first seasonal release, Love the Holidays and Miller’s The Messenger.

“I love this job and I feel really grateful that I’ve gotten to do it for so long,” admitted Miller. “I love to talk about it and think about it. To write songs and figure out a way to feed your kids by going around and singing your songs is a craft. It’s hard work and really fun. It’s good to be able to bond with other people about it and figure out how to make it work better.”

The creative energy among his fellow musicians is probably stronger than it was in the early days.

“We’ve found ways to treat each other with more respect as time has gone on and to be less sensitive in our interactions. There’s a lot of love. You don’t keep a band together for 25 years without really liking the other guys and appreciating them.”

During the current Holiday Extravaganza Tour, the always exuberant, eternally boyish lead singer plays a solo acoustic set, introduces a guest magician and then does a full Old 97’s performance. I caught up with Miller, 48, from Philadelphia, after he and the band finished recording a session for long-running NPR music program World CafĂ©.

George Paul: Where did the idea of doing a seasonal album come from? Did it take a lot of convincing to get the others on board?

Rhett Miller: It did. I knew that we weren’t going to be able to get back into the studio to make a proper studio album this year. I’ve been chomping at the bit for a few years to do it. I feel like you have to earn the right to do a Christmas record. I felt like we’d put enough years in to where now we would finally be able to get away with it without it seeming like a cash grab or a shark jump. We’ve proven we’re in it for the long haul.

I already had a couple of songs I really liked that were holiday songs. I just brought ‘em to the band and said, ‘I think this is a real thing.’ The band was very wary and that’s characteristic of my band to begin with. They have always made me prove it to them. I have to bring in 30 songs, so they can pick their favorite 12 for the album. They don’t just do whatever I want, by any means. I had to write holiday songs, bring ‘em to the guys and really try and sell them on the idea that we could do an album of original holiday songs. Eventually, we had enough to where it felt like an admirable stack of songs and it worked out. They brought their ‘A’ game into the studio and we treated it like a proper Old 97’s album. I’m really happy with it.

Q: When you started the process, did you look to any old favorite Christmas albums as a template?

A: You know, sonically, I wanted it to sound like us. The Elvis [Presley 1957] Christmas album is No. 1 in the rotation at my own house. That’s a Christmas album that sounds very much like Elvis. I really wanted it to sound like an Old 97’s album. Our producer, John Pedigo, did a really great job of emphasizing that - making sure that it didn’t sound like a generic Christmas album. More than anything, it sounded like it could be played alongside any one of our catalog albums. The songs are thematically Christmas-oriented obviously, but they sound like Old 97’s songs.

Q: Ken plays some blazing electric guitar work on several songs. “Auld Lang Syne,” which almost has a punk rock vibe, is a standout.

A: We play on New Year’s Eve every other year. So, we’ve played a dozen or more at this point. It’s a weird gig; it’s my job to stay on track of the time. Now at least we all have iPhones and know exactly what time it is. It’s our job to provide everyone their first moment of the new year and that’s a lot of pressure. I like it; I embrace it, but it’s definitely that kind of thing where you don’t wanna let ‘em down. You want something really positive and energetic. So, our version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ from the very beginning was just straight up Ramones.

Q: Was yodeling always going to be part of the whimsical “Hobo Christmas Song,” where Murry handles the lead vocal?

A: I had written that song with the idea that Murry would sing it. Then he talked me into trading yodels with him. It was the first time I’ve ever yodelled on an album. It was definitely a big experience for me.

Q: As far as the songwriting on the holiday album, you had a few collaborators. How did you end up working with author Ben Greenman? Were you a fan of his novels, short stories or music biographies?

A: Oh my God, I love Ben! He and I have been friends about 12 years now. We’ve wanted to collaborate on a lot of things. We’ve talked about doing a musical together based on a short story he’d written that I really loved. We’re both really busy and it’s hard to figure that stuff out. We had written a few songs together over the years. Just for fun. Nothing that had ever come out. I knew that with a Christmas album, it was a really great opportunity to reach out to collaborators. Because these songs don’t have to be as personal. They’re for everyone. The idea of collaborating seems like a natural idea for a holiday record.

Kevin Russell from The Gourds and Shiny Ribs had a really great idea he sent my way. Ben had a couple of really great ideas. Those two songs Ben and I co-wrote [“Snow Angels,” “Gotta Love Being a Kid”] are my favorite songs on the record. Then Dan Bern had some ideas for ‘Rudolph Was Blue.’ I thought that was really funny and such a hallmark of Dan’s songwriting. All of the collaborations really brought something special to the table.

Q: The “Rudolph” song has a unique premise.

A: It was a pretty weird thing to sexualize Rudolph, but we all grow up and need to mate.

Q: Did you envision “Snow Angel” as a song of unity, especially with lyrics such as “together we’re strong” and “we’re all singing as one?”

A: Very much and I’ve never written songs that felt like social commentary or anything. But that was Ben Greenman challenging me to write a song in the style of ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’, which was written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. I don’t think that I’ve ever lived through a time that felt so divisive or angry. I felt like, if I’m ever going to address it, a Christmas song seems like the most appropriate venue.

Q: I noticed in the liner notes that you recruited some relatives to sing on the album. Which songs do they appear on?

A: Because we were recording in Dallas, my brother’s kids came by the studio. We got them in to sing on ‘I Believe in Santa Claus’; three songs [total]. I really love the end of ‘I Believe in Santa Claus,’ where they’re singing a little kids’ choir part. I felt it was very sweet.

Q: They must have reveled in that experience.

A: They did, and they got to stay up late on a school night. They’re so cute. They got to stand in a recording studio behind a microphone and thought it was pretty cool.

Q: Turning to your solo album The Messenger, congrats on the new single “Total Disaster” garnering your first Adult Alternative radio airplay as a solo artist since “Come Around” in ’02.

A: Thanks. It felt really good. I was just at WXPN [88.5 FM/University of Pennsylvania]. They’re spinning the heck out of it. It’s been nice to see a song on the charts. 

Q: Does the album title have a special significance?

A: If anything, I think it speaks to the handful of songs that make up the core of this album. Tom DeSavia, our A&R guy for years at Elektra and a friend of mine, challenged me to write songs to or in the voice of my 14-year-old self. That was when I was at my lowest point. I was really depressed, I had a suicide attempt and it was just something I’d never grappled with as a songwriter very much. Certainly not explicitly. A lot of the songs deal with that. The title is a lyric from ‘Human Condition.’ There’s a break in the middle that says, “Don’t get mad at me/I’m just the messenger.” I see it as me time travelling to give a message to my younger self and let myself know, ‘It’s gonna be OK.’

Q: In making The Messenger, you’ve said that you wanted to do the unexpected, namely use musicians and a producer that you hadn’t worked with before. You recorded it in Woodstock, New York, not far from where you live, in under a week. Do you think all of that gave the album more immediacy than your most recent solo efforts?

A: I definitely felt musically, it was really off the cuff. My favorite part of making music is inspiration and trusting your instinct. This album was all about that. Recording these songs in five days with guys I’d just met - it was the opposite of calculated. It was really instinctive and felt like the right move for these songs.

Q: Were you familiar with producer/musician Sam Cohen’s alt-rock group Apollo Sunshine from the 2000s?

A: It was more the records he produced. Then I went back and listened to his band and I really loved the psychedelic vibe on those records. I think he’s an incredible instrumentalist. He’s able to translate these wild ideas he has into guitar and keyboard sounds really quickly. He reminded me of Jon Brion, who I’ve worked with before. Sam is a sonic architect and really gifted. It’s a straight line between his ideas and his fingertips.

Q: Were you seeking a late ‘60s retro rock vibe with some of these songs?

A: I was willing to follow the vibe where it led us. As soon as that rhythm section started playing together – they’d never met before – and I could hear the way they interacted, it was this really strong groove. I was so happy to sit back and let them build this thing, watch it and be surprised by it. One of my favorite things about making records is getting to be the first audience for the songs and the way they’re going to sound. It’s just so cool and such a surprise. I love it.

Q: Was the Tom Petty-ish “Permanent Damage,” where you sing, “nobody wants to hear about your stupid dream/we don’t even want to hear about half the shit that happens in reality,” inspired by people who tend to overshare on social media?

A: [Laughs] For sure. In Los Angeles, comedian Greg Behrendt [would perform] at Largo in the old days when I was hanging around and making all my L.A. friends. He used to do a routine about walking up to a conversation at a party and not realizing the person in the middle of telling a story was talking about their dream. You just can’t believe what they’re saying, and you want those five minutes of your life back. It’s just a stand-up routine, but I kept thinking about it.

We vomit up all this information all the time to strangers. It can be a bit much. Also, it was partially in response to the songs I’d been writing on this record. [They] were so personal and I’ve always avoided that sort of naval gazing thing. I’ve never wanted to be someone that sounds like I’m reading out of my diary. I think I was having a moment of insecurity about the level of vulnerability I was achieving on this record. Maybe I was telling myself, ‘whoa, slow down buddy, no one wants to hear all of this.’

Q: I’m sure the fans appreciate your more personal songs like “Close Most of the Time” and the thought-provoking “Human Condition.”

A: There’s a lot of autobiography on this record. My friend Robert, who’s appeared on our songs over the years, said when I played him ‘Close Most of the Time,’ it was ‘the most factually accurate song you’ve ever written.’ Damning me with faint praise.

Q: On the quieter, piano-based “I Used to Write in Notebooks, were you touching upon how everyday life has changed with technology?

A: I was a little bit worried that song would sound like an old man complaining about the modern world. If anything, it’s funny. The modern world brings everything to your fingertips, but it also brings with it this kind of remove – everything is separated by the screen and seems fraudulent because of the delivery system. For the record – I still write in notebooks. I used to, and I still do! [laughs]

Q: Next spring, you have a book titled “No More Poems,” listed on Amazon as “a riotous collection of irreverent poems for modern families in the tradition of Shel Silverstein,” coming out. Was that something you’d wanted to do for a while?

A: It’s pretty goofy. My kids were the inspiration for it. The whole idea to begin with was trying to get their attention when I would call in from the road. It’s one thing for me to ask, ‘How was your day at school?’ But if you say, ‘I wrote a new poem and I need you to tell me what you think about it,’ then they’re all in. They can critique me or tell me how it sucks. It was really fun; they were so great. I would not have done it if I didn’t have these kids I was trying to impress and engage. I’m glad I did. It’s a crazy thing. The publisher seems to be behind it. I landed the greatest illustrator in the world, Caldecott medalist Dan Santat. A brilliant guy.

Q: Lately on your Twitter feed, you’ve been teasing fans about an upcoming project announcement involving Rosanne Cash, Rob Thomas, Fred Armisen and Will Forte. When do you plan to spill the beans?

A: At the top of next year. Any sharp-eyed observer of modern pop culture can probably guess loosely what it’s going to be like. I’m lucky that I get to talk to people about this job we have.