Friday, July 31, 2009

The Amazements...amazing, eh?

Been checking out the WFMU heavily played list and stumbled upon a very interesting band called the Amazements, who are about one-part scuzzy garage, one-part jitter punk and one-part free improv experimental...they're from LA and there's a record called Sticky Rubies on the Peter's Pool Boys label.

Here are a couple of videos

Yeah, Blues Control was great...wha?

My review of the extremely loud but very satisfying Blues Control/Kurt Vile show is up now at Blurt. Read it here.

Or just skip to these really excellent mp3s from the Free Music Archive.

Kurt Vile "Freeway"

Blues Control "Frankie's Problem"

Blues Control "MashPotato"

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fruit Bats and Dry Spells

Been really, really busy with work stuff lately…sorry about the lack of creativity in posting. I do have two new reviews up at Dusted today, one of the Seattle Fruit Bats (whose songwriter, oddly enough, is also in Factums) and the other of a mostly female folk rock band called Dry Spells, whom I might have mentioned before. Both pretty good.

Here's Fruit Bats "The Ruminant Band"

And Dry Spells "Lost Daughter"

Now back to work.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Book review

My review of the Robert Lurie's book on the Church runs here at Blurt today.

I like the Church, too, but holy shit, is this guy a nutter fan or what?

Still, gotta love "Milky Way"

Monday, July 27, 2009

Good morning...Okie Dokie

Spazzed out LA punk band performing "Milk" live.

There's an EP coming on Aagoo (which is where the completely different but also fairly interesting Au got started)...the really killer track, for some reason, didn't get performed on this radio show. It's called "Ooga Booga", and you can download it here.

Is it too early for this stuff where you are?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Frank Black played Fort Wayne and I missed it...

So, I have another interview up at Flavorwire today, this one with former Pixies frontman Frank Black and his wife Victoria Clarke. The two of them are in a very interesting, kind of disorienting project called Grand Duchy which sounds a bit like the Pixies, a bit like Frank Black and a bit like Depeche Mode. (It's the last one that's the kicker, but it sort of works.)

You can read it here.

Anyway, in the interests of professional non-first-person journalism, the editor cut a long digression about Grand Duchy's first single, "Fort Wayne," which was infinitely fascinating to me, because I spent years 4-18 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, riding my bike, wondering about boys, learning to read, etc...(not in that order, but you get the idea).

So what better place for self-absorbed bloggy first-person than here?

This is the part that got cut.
Clarke began contributing regularly to Black’s projects. (She was the main bass player on his 2008 album Svn Fngrs). It was also right about this time that Grand Duchy came into existence, through a casual jam that led to their first song together.

The resulting song is called “Fort Wayne,” and it balances the rough, sometimes sardonic energy of Black with a creamy layer of Clarke’s electro electro-pop. It is also, coincidentally, named after the town where I grew up, a stolid, mid-sized Midwestern city with lots of churches, but, as I recall, no real rock clubs at all. (Bands like Styx and Journey played at the Coliseum when there were no Fort Wayne Comets Hockey games on and when high school basketball was temporarily on hiatus.) Yet Black says that the Pixies played a show in Fort Wayne sometime in 1987 in venue that was mostly a bar, except for Sundays when the owner would bring bands in to boost attendance. I am temporarily flummoxed by the image of the Pixies setting up in a bar in my home town, only a few years after I’ve left forever, deciding that nothing interesting was ever going to happen there.

The song, “Fort Wayne,” seems only glancingly related to the town Fort Wayne, however. There is next to no chance that the Chamber of Commerce will pick it up for a theme song. The cut has a melancholy, nostalgic thread to it, and seems to be partly about the hunger for music and community in the most unlikely places. But it is also about a lot of other things, and contains a long passage in French. It is opaque and evocative at the same time, full of raw, natural feeling, but also glazed over with surreality.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


My interview with the best band in the world runs today at Blurt.

Read it here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The dam breaks…Bowerbirds and Megafaun live review up now…

And damn, he used, like, all of my photos.

It begins:

Banjos, accordions, fiddles, string bass...both Bowerbirds and Megafaun make use of the most traditional of backwoods instruments. Both root their sounds in a kind of barefoot simplicity, but neither is content to leave it there, instead taking flights in free verse, free jazz and three- and four-part harmony. The Bowerbirds end up with a kind of gypsy melancholic indie rock, striated with spiritual awareness, while Megafaun bounds from sound to sound, now string-band righteous, now wildly experimental, now pure California pop.


Spazzy no wave from Seattle

Got a new review up at Dusted, this one of the Seattle punk band Talbot Tagora’s first full length, which is called, Lessons in the Woods or a City. It came out today on Hardly Art, which is more or less Sub Pop, only different.

Talbot Tagora filters ’90s no wave post-punk through a grit-clogged lo-fi filter, sideways hopping over unpredictable anti-rhythms and making stomach-jolting leaps over irregular clusters of notes. Repetitive, psyche-battering noise obscures things – most of the songs sound like there was a jackhammer nearby during recording – yet, after a couple of times through, it’s easy enough to discern pop hooks. Their blend of lurching mechanical grind and teasing, just-out-of-focus tunefulness evokes the Pixies early on, Sonic Youth later, Swell Maps intermittently, Ubu sometimes, yet really none of the current crop of lo-fi-ers. You can look all you want for fashionable references to Jesus & Mary Chain or C86, but this is a whole different animal.

The rest

Sound good? Check out “Icthus Hop”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lights better the second time…

Second LP from Brooklyn’s Lights, a freak folky, mostly female band with a slant towards the 1960s guitar psych…really liked the debut, but this one is even better. I'm inclined to credit the new bass player for the less-freak-y-more-party sound, but I could be wrong...anyway, it's more fun the second time.

I can’t find jack about Lights on the web, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Here’s the review up today at Dusted.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I've been least mentally

Yeah, I know, I've been pretty slack about this, not sure if anyone cares, really.

I haven't had any music stuff to post in a while, still putting it in at the top of the funnel, but it seems to be getting stuck somewhere before it comes out the bottom. Anyway, it looks like a few things will run this week. Meanwhile, what have I been doing?

1. Reading: Inkspell, yes a kid's book, my son got me hooked on this stuff. It's a fantasy where certain people can read themselves into stories and, occasionally, read characters out into the "real world." (Which is also in a book, come to think about it.) Also a really not that great book about the Australian band the Church, which I have to review fairly soon. The odd thing is that the author is just incredibly enamored of the band and Steve Kilbey, to the extent that he doesn't seem to register how psychotic the guy is. Anyway...50 pages to go on that, and then I might read the new Richard Ford book whose name escapes me at the moment, the new one in the Sportswriter trilogy.

2. Movies: Re-watched the first Lord of the Rings with Sean, who was kind of freaked out by the whole entreprise when they came out the first time and now wants to catch up. Also "12" a Russian language re-conception of the play "12 Angry Men" which at 3 hours long is a little actor-y (everybody gets a wrenching moment, which may, in certain cases, drag on for five minutes or so), but had some very fine performances.

3. Working: Not enough and not getting paid for what I've done, but I've had a couple of new projects come in lately, so maybe we will be able to scrape our way back into the middle class soon.

4. Running: I am in such awesome shape now, ten miles is nothing, and I've been doing 50-55 per week for a month and a half with no injuries. I'm starting to feel like i did when I was 28-29 again, like everything works and nothing is extraneous and I could go forever. But I suppose I really can't anymore. I've lost a few pounds without trying at all.

5. Family. Sean's in a production of Grease, now, so lots of driving again.

6. Rock 'n roll. Bought a very intriguing CD by Bobb Trimble yesterday, also caught Kurt Vile again and BLues Control for the first time last night...I have a write-up coming at some point. Both really excellent, but if you go to Blues Control bring ear plugs. I got a new CD by Yoko Ono, the other day, imagine that! Also some cool looking stuff by Slaraffenland, Malcolm Middleton, Fruit Bats, etc...

So, hopefully at some point I'll have something to say again.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ty Segall again

I was hoping that Lemons would solve my Ty Segall problem, i.e. that his wonderfully raucous S-T came too late last year to wedge its way onto my 2008 list. (Indeed, I didn’t discover it until well into 2009, so much for the bleeding edge, eh?) A new record could stand in for the old one, fair is fair, everything evens out, except in this case, it doesn’t. I ended up liking Lemons a good bit less than Ty Segall and it’s hard to see how it will make its way into top 20 for 2009. Top 30 maybe, but no one cares about that. (As if not caring were any excuse…we’d all sit around doing nothing all day if we did only things that people care about.)

Okay, but I gave it a six and liked it maybe 6.5 worth and the review’s up at Blurt. You can read it right now if you want.

Or check out this track at Spinner, “It #1” (the boy loves his its.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bowerbirds, now, words later

Hey, I went to a show on Saturday!

I ran 18 miles in the morning, drove my son to Brattleboro (and then back), took a nap and headed out to a 10 p.m. performance by Bowerbirds and Megafaun. It was great, not just for the music, but because I didn't fall asleep at the show or crash the car on the way back. (Yay, for Red Bull!)

I just finished my write-up for Blurt, which, with any luck, will go up in a week or so, but for now a couple of pictures.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Double Dagger

My review of Double Dagger's More, up today at Blurt.

Double Dagger, out of Baltimore, crosses the hoarse-throated, minimalist Dischord aesthetic with the clanking metallic funk of Gang of Four. An art-schooled, sardonically aware, unconventionally instrumented (no guitar, but a bass that sounds like one) outfit, the band was known, early on, for wrapping hard core rants around graphic design metaphors. Its name, after all, comes from a typographical symbol and two of its three principals run a design firm as their main moneymaking gig. With this third full-length, typographical metaphors have mostly been abandoned. However, you can still intuit a designer's instinct for bold strokes against deep white space in the band's massive yet stark attack.

More of More

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Another one from the vaults...on sacred harp singing

This is my favorite of all the Copper Press articles that will never see the light of day, about a weirdly persistent, unbelievably moving musical art form called Sacred Harp singing. It was the subject of a documentary called Awake My Soul -- and of a two disc CD, the first disc traditional interpretations, the second contemporary covers of these songs. I hope you enjoy the article. It seems like a shame that it will never get a formal publication, but least my three fans will see it. Hi mom! Hi dad! Hi Sean!

Make a joyful noise:
The revival of sacred harp singing

The film Awake My Soul begins on a narrow, rutted country road, the camera’s viewpoint winding its way through stands of trees as the sound of singing becomes louder and louder. Finally, a small wooden building emerges from around a bend. It is Shoals Creek Church, located deep in the Talledega National Forest in rural Georgia. And yet, despite its inaccessibility, the clearing is full of cars. The church is full of people, all singing at the top of their lungs, executing complicated melodies and countermelodies, unaccompanied by any sort of instrument.

In a way, this opening encapsulates the central paradox of sacred harp singing, an art form that is nearly as old as America. Sacred harp singers form a thriving community in the most isolated of places. They practice a wholly participatory art, one that is seldom recorded and never performed for audiences. They sing out of books of songs that may be hundreds of years old, yet which continually incorporate new music composed in the sacred harp style.

What exactly is sacred harp singing? In its simplest terms, it is a four-part, unaccompanied vocal art form that originated in Colonial America. Its hymns are written out in a four-figured notation, using a different shape for each of its notes, fa, so, la and mi. (It is sometimes called shape note singing because of the notation.)

Sacred harp singing is a participatory art, rather than a performance. Singers gather for all day sings, starting at nine or ten in the morning, breaking for lunch and returning to sing late into the afternoon. In a one day’s gathering, singers may work through 90 to 100 songs, the first time through singing only the notes (“fa”, “so” etc.), the second time using the words. Four groups of singers – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – are arranged facing inward, towards the “hollow square”, the best place to experience sacred harp singing. Singers take turns as leader, beating out the time in this hollow square,

Singers’ music
Still unlike many traditional art forms, sacred harp singing has never really been commercialized and so remains remarkably uncorrupted by the modern world. Matt Hinton, who with his wife created Awake My Soul speculates that sacred harp music may have survived intact at least partly because of its communal, participatory nature. “It’s not listener’s music. It’s singers’ music,” says Hinton.

“I don’t just mean that there’s a priority placed on participating, which there is, but what I mean is just the very way that songs are written, it’s just not that suitable for listening to,” he adds. “Though some people enjoy listening to it and I certainly do.”

Hinton goes on to explain that when the uninitiated first hear sacred harp music, typically from the back of a church, what they perceive is a mishmash of four distinctly different parts. “If they had to hum a tune, the melody would probably be the first couple of notes of the tenor line and then a couple of notes of the treble line and a couple of notes of the alto line and put them all together,” Hinton says. And that’s assuming that new listeners can even pick a central melodic line out of a complex tapestry of counterpoints. “Sometimes there really is no main melody/ That is, there’s not a melody that other parts are supporting, but rather each part is generally written as something interesting and important all by itself,” Hinton goes on. That’s why bass singers, in particular, and tenors for that matter, really love singing it. Ordinarily they get stuck with these really boring parts in choruses. Which purely serve to be a foundation upon which the sopranos get to sing the melody.”

That complexity, in itself, has helped protect the art form. “There’s not anybody who could walk into a Sacred Harp singing, not really knowing anything about it, and take it over,” says Hinton. “Even if you’re a professional musician and know how to read music and so on, you still have to learn how to do it. At which point you begin to learn some of its priorities and to understand it.”

“On the one hand, it’s very open and embracing. Everybody’s welcome to come and welcome, indeed, to come up and lead a song,” he says. “But on the other hand, if you come in, if you walk into the room, a lot of people’s backs are turned to you. We’re all facing the center and it’s sort of a closed off thing. That sort of gives off a feeling of being…being a community on one hand, but also having its back turned on the outside world.”

Help me to sing
Sacred harp singing is a tradition that has been handed down, generation after generation in the south. Many of today’s singers come from families that have sung these songs for as long as anyone can remember. Elderly singers talk of playing outside while their parents sang, or hearing these songs from their own grandparents. Yet it is a tradition that is always in danger of dying out if new singers are not brought in. So, while deeply rooted in personal and community history, while physically and metaphorically inward-looking, the sacred harp art form is also remarkably inclusive.

“At many of these sings, there’s a memorial afterwards where we commemorate singers who we’ve sung with and who have died in the previous year,” says Hinton. “Every so often, someone will get up and say, well, I’d like to sing this for Uncle so and so, who I used to hear in the 1940s and 1950s sing. So some of the elderly people who sing this kind of music, they’re not going to be with us forever. And so they have to be replaced by somebody. So there’s always a real strong motivation to get more people there.”

The documentary, Awake My Soul, traces the history of sacred harp singing from its beginnings in New England during the Great Awakening through its heyday in the 19th century through its current revival. Yet alongside this history, the film captures the art form in its current, living state, with extensive footage of sacred harp singing, interviews with leading singers and songwriters.

Matt Hinton, who made the documentary with his wife Erica, says that he stumbled across sacred harp singing as a teenager. He was at a concert featuring North Carolina ballad singer Betty Smith when someone handed him a flyer for an upcoming sacred harp singing. “I went out to the singing and it was in this old brick church, maybe 35 or 40 minutes outside of Atlanta, and couldn’t really believe what it was I was hearing. It was a relatively small group of people there -- maybe 40 or so people -- but it sounded like there were hundreds. You could hear them before you got to the door of the place,” he remembers. At the time I thought that these were the last people in the world who were doing this. I thought it was a lost musical tribe.”

From that point on, Hinton went to two or three sings a year, always sitting in the back and reluctant to participate. Erica, who would later become his wife, came with him on one of these expeditions; she later learned that her grandmother had been a sacred harp singer. Both were students at Georgia State University when they met. Erica took a documentary film class and decided to make her assigned 10-minute film on sacred harp singing.

“So we went to a couple of singings one weekend and she edited that and made a ten-minute film, which she called ‘Awake My Soul,’” he said. “But ten minutes is just not enough, obviously, to cover the entire history of the Sacred Harp singing. We kept bringing the camera and sort of never considered that project to be finished.”

Contemporary interpretationsThat ten-minute film has since evolved into a full-length documentary, plus a two CD set, with one CD (Awake My Soul) comprised of traditional sacred harp singing, the other (Help Me to Sing) of covers of sacred harp hymns interpreted by contemporary artists.

One of the biggest names on this second disc is John Paul Jones, the former Led Zeppelin bass player who has long had a fascination for traditional American music. Hinton, a self-described Zeppelin fanatic, says that he ran into Jones at Merle Fest in North Carolina (where Awake My Soul was screening) and asked for an autograph. “Any kind of notion of coolness that you have?” he says. “Completely goes out the window when you’re with John Paul Jones.”

As it happened, the only paper he had to offer was a copy of the sacred harp songbook. The two had a brief conversation and Hinton gave Jones a copy of his album, at that time, comprised only of authentic, choral versions of sacred harp songs. (The covers came later.) The next day, Hinton ran into Jones again and the two had a long conversation about sacred harp singing. “I was in the surreal position of actually being able to tell John Paul Jones anything about music, you know what I mean?” recalls Hinton. “Which was strange because I had learned how to play guitar based on listening to his recordings.”

Jones had recently produced an album by the string band Uncle Earl, and Hinton had already been in contact with the band’s fiddler, Raina Gellert , about contributing a sacred harp recording. “So we were emailing back and forth, and I said, by the way, Raina Gellert and John Paul Jones sure has a nice ring to it,” Hinton recalls. The two of them ended up recording “Blooming Youth,” their two voices intertwining in one of the album’s starkest, most haunting cuts.

Other singers came to the project through deep personal connections with sacred harp music. Sam Amidon, who sings “Kedron” on the covers disc, says he was first introduced to sacred harp singing by his mom and dad. “My parents got deeply involved with shape-note singing when, in the midst of the folk revival, they joined Larry Gordon's Word of Mouth Chorus in the '70s, before they were married - they were in their mid-20s,” he says. “They toured with Larry & Bread & Puppet before settling in Brattleboro, Vermont. From the time I was born there were monthly sings in our town and often in our house, so this is some of the first music I heard or participated in.”

Stephen Nichols of the Good Players, who covers “David’s Lamentations” also had an early introduction to the sacred harp tradition. “My father is a Southern Baptist music minister. I remember academic discussions about shape note/Sacred Harp music,” he explains. “The church pianist led a workshop on shape note singing when I was too young to appreciate it.”

Nichols says that, like many people, he didn’t fully appreciate the music until he attended a sing. “The curious methodology of shaped notes is irrelevant when you're surrounded by over 100 people singing with conviction at the top of their lungs in the middle of nowhere,” he says.

Moreover, the artists on the disc maintain that sacred harp singing is not a, historical oddity, but rather a living, breathing influence on their own work. Amidon says that sacred harp harmonies and counterpoints have been a large part of his personal musical DNA – and that they continue to influence his recorded output. ”The style of singing has been hugely influential for me, it was the main kind of singing i did in high school; the open harmonies of the songs are really powerful & always inspiring,” he explains. “I sing a lot of re-worked shape-note pieces on my solo records.”

The power of incorrectness
The covers are very fine, yet you cannot help returning to the disc of originals, recorded in churches, with amateur singers, in a style that is fierce and forceful and utterly transporting. Even well-known melodies like “New Britain” (also known as “Amazing Grace”) take on unfamiliar heft and complexity in these arrangements, as well as a volume that is nearly shocking.

Asked if he has a favorite among the traditional songs, Hinton first demurs, then points to “Eternal Day.” “If somebody asked me to play them one Sacred Harp song which would completely illustrate what Sacred Harp singing is about, that has all the elements that are distinctive about Sacred Harp singing, that’s the song that I would choose,” he says. The song was written in the 1800s by a traveling pastor named J.P. Reese, incorporates all the “incorrectness” of traditional sacred harp music, the two-note chords and parallel fifths. It is a fuguing tune, with the four sections singing the same motif at staggered intervals, for a dazzling sense of motion and pursuit. And it is sung imperfectly, by ordinary people, pushing their voices to their very limits. You can hear a baby crying in the background. Yet for all this wrong-ness, there is no denying the power of the song. “It’s crazy what a heavy song that is,” he adds. “I’d put that up against any Black Sabbath song in the world in terms of sheer heaviness.”

Amidon also sees parallels between sacred harp and rock music. “I have always heard a lot of the intensity of shape note music in Kurt Cobain's singing and his guitar playing too,” he says. “I think that's what the great Tim Eriksen was picking up on in his work with the band Cordelia's Dad in the nineties, when they sang shape note songs - I think they even opened for Nirvana at one point. I also feel like there is an interesting connection between the harmonies and textures of sacred harp singing, and the drone minimalism of the seventies of LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad.”

Hinton says that he and Tim Eriksen have talked at length about the parallels between punk rock and sacred harp. “Who knows what the relationship is?” he says, “but when you think about it, parallel fifths and two-note chords, that’s just power chords on the guitar. They sound really freaky when you’ve got people singing power chords, rather than a guitar.” And counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s possible to draw a direct line of succession between sacred harp singing and rock and roll. Hinton starts with the Louvin Brothers, natives of sacred harp stronghold Henniker, Alabama. The Louvin Brothers inspired the Everly Brothers, particularly influencing their use of harmonies. And the Everly Brothers inspired the Beatles. “It may not be too much of a stretch to say that if there was no Sacred Harp there would be no Beatles,” says Hinton.

Diversity and inclusion
Rock borrows heavily from African-American traditions, too – like blues, jazz and gospel. All of which brings up an interesting question: is sacred harp singing an all-white tradition? Hinton says no.

“Black people certainly sang Sacred Harp plenty much,” he explains. “In fact, we sing with a guy here now in Atlanta whose great grandfather, or maybe even grandfather, was a slave. He wound up a chapel after he was freed specifically designed for singing Sacred Harp. And this guy remembers singing in that and being raised in it when he was a kid.”

But when gospel music appeared in the early 20th century, black churches turned to it even more than white churches, with the result that there are very few black sacred harp communities now in the American south. However, there are some, including the Wiregrass family in Ozark, Alabama. This family descends from a sacred harp compiler named Judge Jackson, who in 1935 produced a book called The Colored Sacred Harp. One of the Wiregrass family, Dewey Williams, took an early leadership role in the national sacred harp organization and members of the family still participate in its conventions. Yet, as the film Awake My Soul makes clear, there are very few black faces at southern sacred harp sings…and very few young people either.

“As the world became more modern, people became less interested in that old time-y stuff. Even in the 1800s there are these newspaper articles that we’ve seen that talk about this old time-y music. There’s almost never been a time when Sacred Harp wasn’t old-fashioned. If it’s old-time-y in the 1800s, what is it now?”

Yet though the authentic southern singing groups chronicled in the documentary may be aging rapidly, Hinton says that younger people have been joining up in droves in the east and Midwest. A thriving community in Northampton, Massachusetts, for instance, draws upwards of 400 people to the Western Mass Sacred Harp Convention, many of them under 35.

That’s maybe because people of all ages and backgrounds are beginning to see sacred harp music as an antidote to the isolation and wall-to-wall consumerism of modern life. ”Sacred Harp singing and communal singing in general reminds us that we're part of a whole,” says Nichols. “It's an intimate exchange of ideas and emotions without judgment or pretense. Anyone is welcome regardless of ability or religious affiliation. In a time of increasing personal insulation and lives lived in front of screens, group singing is an alternative to constant consumption. You participate. You make the music.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Larkin Grimm: In Hell and Out of It

Late last year and early this one, I wrote a whole bunch of stories for Copper Press, which almost immediately proceeded to go on hiatus. This one actually ran in Supplemental #9, but I think the rest are probably toast. So I'm going to start putting them here, so that the four or five people that like to read my work can have access to them.

Larkin Grimm: In Hell and Out of It

“I’m thinking about hell,” says Larkin Grimm, in the calmest voice imaginable, a low, smokily resonant voice that is somehow simultaneously very sexy and very scary. “I had this feeling when I was a kid that I was in hell, but it was okay. Like if you were born and you were something else before that was really great and then you come into the world and it’s a hellish, hellish place. I mean, you’re there and you’re like, this is it.”

Grimm is speaking by phone from somewhere in Belgium, where she is between shows on what has become a several year long trek from venue to venue, country to country. Along the way, she says she has played a couple of hundred shows a year, linking up on bills with most of the underground scene’s current crop of bands. And yet, though her life has turned peripatetic, this phase is less uncertain that many other parts of Grimm’s existence, where she has spent time, by turns, on hippie communes and red-necked towns, the quads of Yale and the Alaskan wilderness, art galleries and mental hospitals. Along the way, she has made four full-length albums.

Her latest CD, Parplar, out on Young God in October is an unsettling mix of tradition and pure modern eccentricity, its old-time instruments wielded with an anarchist’s glee, its dizzying harmonies and descants wrapped around provocative, feminine-empowered lyrics. She is accompanied, on this particular outing, by the members of Fire on Fire, also a recent Young God signing, as well as Micah Blue Smalldone and a smattering of downtown New Yorkers.

It is a startling album, full of ruthless sexual imagery and authentic southern-tinged Americana. It is, perhaps, exactly the sort of album that you’d have to make if you’d grown up barefoot on a Tennessee commune, followed your father to gigs at red-neck bars in Georgia and earned a scholarship to study art at Yale.

Many of its strongest characters are women, reflecting a life spent under the influence of strong females – starting with an unconventional mother and grandmother. “I was trying to make an album about women,” says Grimm, “and it was because I was trying to explain the world to myself, and I thought that was the way to do it.”

Grimm was raised on a commune dedicated to the Holy Order of MANs, outside of Memphis. “It was a really beautiful childhood actually. It was really very protective of me as a spiritual being,” she recalls. “Both my parents took a lot of acid in the 1960s and both of them had run away from home and joined a utopian community and they thought about everything in terms of energy. They thought about everything in terms of how do we heal the world. How do we fix this problem? How do we escape from this competitive society that we live in? And have peace, you know?”

Yet even in utopia, Grimm found herself drawn towards darkness. “When I was a kid and my mom was cooking…we weren’t vegetarian, which is sort of surprising. But my mom would cook a whole chicken and she would always get me to pull the guts out of the chicken,” she remembers. “ I was the one – of the five kids in the family – I was the one who wanted to do that.”

Feminism and body image
Grimm gets her feminism from her earliest years, starting with a mother who was – and is – strikingly beautiful, but who made physical good looks a taboo subject at home.

“My mother’s mother was a fashion model with some pretty bad eating disorders,” Grimm explains. “My grandmother died of colon cancer when she was very young. And it was because she didn’t eat. She had cancer all over her body by the time she was 45,”

“My mother saw her own mother being objectified, and she hated that all her life. So that’s kind of why she ran away from home,” she added, “When I was born, I was her first daughter. I was her feminist experiment. You know? She wouldn’t let anyone tell me that I was beautiful. She wouldn’t let anybody compliment me on anything other things that I had done.”

That wariness of physical beauty comes through in Grimm’s music, too, in the song “Blond and Golden Johns,” with its eerie, lullaby melody and chilling sexual imagery. Against the plinking of xylophones and skittery strings, Grimm intones, “And I’ve been penetrated so/I’m welcome everywhere I go/This mouth has wrapped around something/more delicious than these songs I sing/And not just men have known my charms/You women, too, with your golden arms.”

“I wrote that song about Paris Hilton,” she says, when asked about the song. “I think we’ve got this culture where the female body is on display constantly. It’s manipulating us. You see the female body everywhere, representative of the whole universe in which we live. When you meet a girl who’s like 16 years old, there’s something about these young girls that they just represent everything in society. They’re so sensitive. And they’re so expressive of their feelings and emotions. They’re taking everything in all the time. It’s reflected on their faces and in their bodies. It’s like you can know so much about society by looking at the young women. Because they’re the ones who don’t hide it, because nobody’s making them hide it.”

Red-neck bars and old-time music
Grimm’s family left the commune when she was about six, moving to Delonica, Georgia, a hard-bitten village in the Appalachian Mountains. There, her father worked days in a record store and nights playing classic southern rock in bar bands. “My father was such a passionate musician and he just…he was trapped by his five children and his wife and working like a slave to feed us all,” she says. “He would be out until three o’clock in the morning playing music. And then come home and go to the music store that he owned and work at the music store in the morning. He’d come home at three in the morning. He’d wake up at nine o’clock in the morning and go to work and come home for dinner and then go out. So my experience of my father is really just music.”

Grimm’s father wasn’t around enough to teach her to play guitar or banjo or mandolin, but she says she picked up much of what she knows about traditional music from listening to him play. “My mom always had a baby, and it was a very, very small house,” she remembers. “And so when he was at home, my father would play acoustic instruments, banjo and the fiddle. If his friends came over, they would play old-time music.” From these sessions, Larkin got a grounding in the bluegrass, country and folk that runs through her own music. “The songs are easy to learn and I was singing along. My sisters and my brothers also. We all knew these songs. We knew hundreds and hundreds of songs by heart. They just e,nter into your consciousness at a certain point. I don’t even have to try to channel that stuff. It just comes through. Because my dad was such a crazy musician,” she says.

By the time, Grimm was nine, her mother would sometimes take her to the bars where her father played his louder, more rocking music, offering a glimpse into a rough and alien world. “The women would be throwing their underwear at him. And they were red-neck women. The women were toothless and stringy and wild. And they’d have knife fights on top of their cars in the parking lot,” she says.

“I’ve never been squeamish or very much afraid of anything,” she says, when asked how, at age nine, she dealt with those kind of experiences. “It was just, all right, here they go.”

Yale and music
Not long after that, the academically gifted Grimm got a scholarship to a private boarding school. She later went to Yale, also on scholarship, to study art. It was at Yale, at a student exhibition, that she began to make music.

“I did a performance piece in which I lived in the art gallery for one week. I didn’t bring any food, and I camped out in a tent and I was just drawing on the walls and making my own little utopian commune inside this room,” says Grimm. “Anybody who came into this room had to play by my rules. But they could also write more rules on the wall and I would have to follow their rules.”

One rule, for instance, was that everyone had to sing to communicate. Over the week, people began bringing musical instruments to the gallery. A new rule was made that there would be a musical performance every hour. “People would come into the gallery to see the art, and a song would begin and they would become a part of the song. I recorded them all. So by the end of the week, I had about 16 songs.”

Songs from a mental ward
Grimm’s second album also began at Yale, but in a much more troubled setting. “ I was in Yale University and all of my friends were having nervous breakdowns. Everybody I was friends with ended up in the mental hospital at one point or another,” she says. “ I was going in there to visit them and eventually spent some time in there myself”

Grimm describes taking anti-depressants and mood stabilizers for a time, before deciding to heal herself, at home, in Georgia. “I detoxed basically,” she says. “ It was harsh. I’d never done heroin, but I think it’s sort of like I had a similar experience to people that I know who’ve had to go through that period of physically getting off something, emotionally, mentally getting off something. And your body is shaking and your mind is screaming inside of your head. And you’re just totally freaking out.” The songs she wrote during this period were what caught Michael Gira’s ear, and led to her signing with Young God.

Connections and collaborations
Grimm went back to Yale and finished, meeting, along the way, some of the musicians who would influence her and shape her work. She first ran into Cerebrus Shoal at college, whose members, now in Fire on Fire, are also signed to Young God and play on Parplar.

She and David Longstreth, also from Yale, met, became lovers and formed Dirty Projectors. She left the band after a messy break-up and went back to making solo music. “It was like …men are vampires. They just suck the life out of you. And women are martyrs and they’re just like, ‘Oh please, take more. Oh please, let me help you,’” she recalls. “I had to quit that band because at a certain point, I didn’t have anything left of my own. I was so caught up in making his art for him, that I had nothing left. And so I quit.”

Grimm also began recording intensely, creating the songs that made up her third breakthrough album Harpoon. “I was getting my strength back when I made that album. And it was so awesome when people actually liked it and started inviting me to travel around and perform. That was the first time I had really thought of myself as a musician in any way,” she says.

Parplar…the cosmic orgasm
Grimm’s fourth album Parplar is her first recorded with Young God’s Michael Gira. She says the title comes from her own particular vision of orgasm. “Parplar is like the galaxy where orgasms come from. It’s the place beyond,” she says. She adds, “ A lot of girls, you know, they think about boys and maybe they’re masturbating. For me it was never that. I was always just thinking about stars. I was thinking about the universe and what’s beyond the universe.”

Grimm says that her bedroom, when she was a teenager, had a skylight and that she’d often fall asleep looking at the stars. Now fascinated by occult phenomena like astral traveling and lucid dreaming, she studies these out-of-body experiences with two shamans. I’ve done a lot of dream journeying, shamanic journeying, astral travel, whatever, leavint the physical body and traveling to the dream world,” she says. “Orgasm is sort of like that moment when you leave the body. With every orgasm that you have…you become so aware of the pleasure of being a physical body that you can transcend it. It’s the height of being human and then…oh, what’s beyond?”

Touring now, as she has been for the last several years, Grimm continues to think about what’s beyond and outside of herself, even going so far as to invent a fictional alter-ego named Nicky Palicula to represent another facet of her. If you go to a Larkin Grimm show these days, you may spot one of her co-musicians sporting a blonde wig and in character as a worldly, East European woman. “No man is allowed on stage with me unless he wears the wig,” she says.

Nicky Palicula is one answer a question that Grimm says she hears all the time about exactly who she is and how much of her story is true. And here’s another, straight from the source, “And, yes, I am completely honest about everything, and yes, I am who I say I am, and I’ve done what I said I did, and I’m not making anything up and I’m not trying to make it sound more exciting than it is.”

Fair enough…it seems unlikely that anyone could make Larkin Grimm up.

Are you sick of lo-fi yet?

If you’ve got any more room on your plate, check out Tonstartssbandht, out of Brooklyn, it looks like (or maybe Berlin, all those Bs are confusing)…some very nice psych garage pop at the MySpace.

And a video – covering Hawkwind

I can’t spell it, but I like it…what do you think?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I’m not going to see Sonic Youth this year…but I’m on the list for Megafaun

Yes, my instinct for the marginal is in full flare this week, but I do have a couple of interesting pieces to share.

First I dive deep into alt.rock history in a Flavorwire piece on bands that have opened for Sonic Youth.

I couldn’t get on SY’s guest list if I tried, but I am sort of psyched about seeing Bowerbirds and Megafaun later this week. My review of Bowerbirds’ Upper Air runs today at Dusted.

“Northern Lights”

Monday, July 6, 2009

Stevie Nicks unexpectedly reappears in my life

Okay, I'll admit it. I wore out at least one cassette copy of the Stevie Nicks solo album during college...never bought into her fashion aesthetic, but I really liked "Leather & Lace." But, really, I was pretty sure I'd put all that behind me years ago, lives ago, along with Tommy Tu-Tone ("for the price of a dime, I can always turn to you") and (eek, embarrassing) Phil Collins. Then last week Madame shawls and cowboy boots made a surprise return visit to my music-listening life.

First, I started listening to the Dry Spells, Too Soon for Flowers, a really wonderful acid folk debut from a band made up mostly of the female contingent from Citay. They end with a's "Rhiannon." Which isn't one of the free mp3 giveaways, but here are some others:

"Lost Daughter"


And also, I began to consider Lightning Dust's Infinite Light, and it occured to me that the only real reference point for Amber Wells' vibrato warped contralto was, you guessed it, Stevie Nicks.

"I Knew"

"Never Seen"

I'm reviewing both records for Dusted, though nothing will go up for a while.

In more legitimate news, I am really, really liking the new Dinosaur Jr., my kitchen recorde of the moment, nothing new here, but who plays else plays the guitar like that?

Also, I'm probably going to see Bowerbirds/Megafaun on Saturday, if I can get away. My son's in "As You Like It" all weekend long, but I think we're going to see the Friday show, not Saturday. Mission of Burma is playing a very low-key show in Northampton the night before, which I can't get to, but hope it means new material.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

falling, flying, what's the difference?

Last night I dreamed I was climbing a mountain face in a blinding snowstorm, night falling, impossibly difficult. I reached a ledge and stopped, looked to the side and saw a man carrying a child, buoyed by a giant helium balloon, stepping off the mountain in big bouyant moonsteps and floating downward to the next stop.

No idea what it meant, but a really beautiful image...

Happy fourth!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Help! My list goes to eleven

My best of list is getting awfully crowded these days, with slots still to find for the new Sonic Youth, Bats and Clean records. I’d also like to shoehorn Thee Ohsees record in there somewhere, might have to take ten to the second power to get all this music I love on the list. Anyway, my Ohsees review ran yesterday at Blurt, and I observed, “No record can capture Dwyer’s frantic charm and energy, a stage presence that is both surreally over-the-top and regular-guy approachable. Still, #Help# comes pretty damned close. If this is not the best garage rock record of the year, it’ll only be because Jay Reatard pulls a career high later on in 2009. I hope it happens, but I’m not counting on it.”

The whole damn review

About that Woodsist Party I referenced

Here they are, not at this year’s SXSW, at the Cake Shop last year

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bobb Trimble

The Free Music ARchive has a pretty rad live track from free-psych-long-lost-genius Bobb Trimble called "Live Wire, Live Wire." Check it out here.

Robert Scott interview

Robert Scott plays a role in two of 2009's best pop albums, as singer/songwriter in The Bats and bass player (and sometimes songwriter) in the Clean. I've got a little piece up at Flavorwire about Scott and New Zealand's unexpected resurgence this year. Check it out here.

Bats’ “Countersign

Bats’ “Castle Lights

Bats’ “Like Water in Your Hands” (video)

The Clean’s “In the Dream Life You Need a Rubber Soul