You think you know what you’re in for when “Boy You Need Jesus,” the opening track of Bastard Love Child of Rock ‘n Roll’s debut EP, BimBom, erupts with its frenzied delirium of cymbals and slide guitar, vaguely psychedelic vocals that echo like strange voices from the other side of a canyon at night, and a blast of organ that brings it all home with such aplomb you actually wonder if that’s Augie Meyers on the stool.
You think it’s a young band that’s listened to lots of early Zeppelin and White Stripes, digs the stream-of-consciousness abandon of a Neil Young guitar solo, and actually knows what they mean when they toss around terms like “Psychedelia”—that it’s a sacred and glittering temple inhabited by the likes of Moby Grape, The Seeds, or Quicksilver Messenger Service, and not the sorry crutch it’s become for big-label bands groping for any hip cloak to dress their music in.
You would think these things—and on all accounts you would be right. But you also would be tempted to believe that you’ve just surmised the extent of all this Florida duo has to offer—that they’re a pair of young rockers flicking on their lighters at the altar of the long-gone bands they worship, and that’s that. And you would be wrong. Dead wrong.
“Boy You Need Jesus” fades into the second track’s galactic freak-out of synths that sound like a chorus of crying ghosts. One can hear Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright shaking his head in his grave, muttering “Why didn’t I ever think of that!?” The track plays with all the gusto that its epiphanic title promises–“Hallelujah I’ve Been BLORRN Again,” it’s called–and it keeps I Monster’s “Hey Mrs.” chained to the kitchen sink of its ambition, only without the predictability and polish that those beat masters bring to their club-quaking trip-hop.
Several tracks on BimBom play like many songs packaged into one. It’s no secret that most debut EPs document the sound of a young band on the verge of discovering the identity they’re searching for, and, in a way, BimBom is no exception. The opener’s conventional blues-rock with a hankering for psychedelia gives way to that gorgeous, psych-synth weirdness of “Hallelujah”; “Seven Sisters,” the track for which the band recently completed the video above, calls to mind the haunting soundscape with which Led Zeppelin’s “In The Evening” begins; the shuffling, jazzy licks and percussion of “My Blushing Grape” or “My Poor Delisa” would make just as much sense on some lost Sade record; and the blistering romper “Booty Making Mama Shakin'” glazes its anthemic riffs in a coating of space rock.
“Booty Makin” raises hell with more of the gloriously snotty licks these guys delight in one minute, and dims the lights with the jangling flutters of guitar that call the whole thing softly home the next. The EP is at once bipolar and measured, as self-contained as it is likely to burst. It’s tempting to suggest that Adam Winn and Chris Hess, the brainchildren behind BLORR who prefer the stage names “Cookie Sugarhips” and “Hot Damn Sweet Huckleberry Winn,” have more ideas than they know what to do with, as the record radiates in all directions at once like some sonic solar storm. But by the time the hammering percussion and piercing guitars of its dreamy closer wrap these nine tracks in their fluorescent ribbon, you hear at last the cohesive vision that’s sewn these songs together all along–a vision as committed to looking back at the pioneers that made it possible as it is to thrusting into the future whose road they paved.
This is no typical EP that meanders through a grab-bag of sounds in the hope that something sticks; this is the work of a band that knows what it wants to do and isn’t afraid to do it. And if these nine tracks prove anything for sure, it’s that they’re having a hell of a lot of fun in the meantime.
We are absolutely thrilled to bring you our exclusive interview with Sarah June, a young, up-and-coming songwriter out of San Francisco who grew up a dreamy Detroit kid busking from Chi-Town to Motown. To hear Sarah June sing for the first time is to never forget her; she’s got the kind of voice that sounds like the wind when it howls through door locks and window panes, the high-pitched and breathy wail of a drowned child’s spirit calling your name from the underworld. It’s the kind of voice you run from in your nightmares—not so much haunted as it is chilling—and the moment it raises a hair on your neck or a goose bump on your arm is precisely the moment June’s songs live in. The songs on In Black Robes, a record that made it into Culturespill’s “Best Albums of 2010″ series, are no easier to get out of your mind than the name of the one who first broke your heart. Here, June talks about how she developed her distinctive sound, the many rock ‘n roll pioneers that influenced her music, what other young bands to look out for, the work she’s doing on her third album, and much more.
CS: In Black Robes features an impressive range of influences. From the obvious nods to groups like the Jaynetts, The Crystals or Blue Oyster Cult in some of these songs to broader influences such as Eliot Smith and Dave Van Ronk or dark, acoustic records like Hurt Me by Johnny Thunders or Atlantic City by Springsteen. How did such a wide range of influences find their way into your music?
SJ: Well, first of all I’m so pleased that you heard those musical nods I gave on In Black Robes to those musicians. As far as where I got my wide range of musical influences, I was lucky to grow up in Detroit, Michigan – Motown – the cradle of one of the most influential musical movements ever in American history! The signature Motown sound inspired me from the time I was a child, thanks to my parents exposing me to this music from the time I was a very young child. I was quite infatuated with girl groups like The Jaynetts, The Ronettes, and The Supremes as a young girl, and I also loved vintage Rock n’ Rollers like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to name only a few. My parents played a lot of records when I was a child; music that has become permanently woven into my subconscious. I remember listening to soul musicians like Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Mary Wells, as well as more 60’s and 70’s era psychedelic music like Blue Oyster Cult, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Pink Floyd, and many others.
Another heavy musical influence came from being classically trained on the piano beginning at eight years old. I played in recitals and competitions, and practiced about an hour every day. Then when I was about thirteen years old I delved into guitar and banjo, and taught myself by listening to artists whose guitar work I admired, like Ani Difranco, Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith, and Nick Drake. I worked to emulate their guitar technique, and soon I was developing my own technique. Around fifteen years old, I took formal guitar and banjo lessons. I learned to play clawhammer, and I’ve adopted my own way of meshing that style of picking with my own eccentric style on the guitar. I use a banjo thumb-pick and I play on a Jazz guitar; in a very staccato clawhammer style. But, I do not use of alternate tunings that were often employed by those I admired on the guitar. I’ve remained a bit of a purest and I only play in standard tuning. And, I still go back to those old records from childhood when I need inspiration.
CS: The songs on this record feature a lot of fascinating, macabre imagery—the Grim Reaper makes several appearances, and you really like skeletons—especially lonely ones! Can you talk about how you developed a fascination with that sort of imagery in your songwriting?
SJ: I have always been fascinated with dark imagery, but in a very lighthearted way. I loved those 1930’s cartoons of the dancing skeletons, for example. I also collect and create Day of the Dead art, whose imagery centers around skulls and skeletons. I also collect religious icon art, mostly Catholic. On In Black Robes I wanted to tackle the classic (and almost cliché) themes of death and loss, while somehow creating fresh, original, and currently relevant songs that still lie within this framework.
CS: What is your response to those who are content to characterize In Black Robes merely as a “goth” album?
SJ: It’s not a goth album. It is more of an Americana album with heavy blues, jazz, and Rock n’ Roll undertones than anything else. I think that if more young people took the time to delve into old recordings of artists who planted the true roots of Rock n’ Roll, their ideas of genre would be broadened. And I’m not talking about Elvis, which is where a lot of folks tend to name the creator of Rock n’ Roll. I’m honoring the unsung heroes who wrote Rock n’ Roll songs all the way back to the 1930’s. The early Rock n’ Roll songs were quite sparse, had complex guitar, simple hooks, and a gritty honesty. I feel that is what I capture in my music (even if I don’t have a gritty voice). I work very hard to be well-versed in Blues, Jazz, and Rock n’ Roll. I think it is important to acknowledge the roots of musical movements as well as picking the new leaves that have grown with time. These new leaves, so to speak, have deep roots.
CS: The song “Motown” displays a lot of warm affection for the city of Detroit. You suggest that Detroit will be fine even as you acknowledge the terrible struggles that city is currently going through. The song is a bit of a departure from the album’s predominant themes—why were you compelled to craft a song on the subject of the struggles that the city of Detroit currently faces?
SJ: I think Detroit is a misunderstood city by those who haven’t lived here. This city, like so many large cities, has gone through many waves of change, some that have hailed in Detroit’s Golden Era, and some that have brought in poverty, despair, and urban decay. What many people do not know is that Detroit is still a city thriving with artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs, and has a very diverse culture, is at a forefront of Urban Farming, and has a resurgence of excitement over where the city is headed. Detroit will rise above its misfortunes, and emerge again “The Paris of the Midwest”.
CS: How, if at all, did your experience playing gigs in Detroit and Chicago as a teen help you develop the kind the unique sound and songwriting that you employ today?
SJ: Well, I performed in bars before I was old enough to drink, and before smoking laws were passed. So, I had the gritty experience of playing in bars filled with smoke, getting served beer as a teenager, and having to compete with all male musicians as a very petite young girl. I quickly learned to summon a raw energy that most people wouldn’t expect of a young female performer with just a guitar and a microphone.
CS: You currently live in San Francisco, where there appears to be an increasingly vibrant music scene—bands like Lloyd’s Garage and Thee Oh Sees come to mind. What attracted you to San Francisco, and are there any up-and-coming San Fran bands that we should keep an eye on?
SJ: I wanted to live in California, but not in Los Angeles. So I chose San Francisco. I made a good choice. It is a fantastic city with so much going on. As far as music, I would keep an eye out for Summer of Glaciers, The Heavy Sugar Duo, Unwoman, and Carta.
CS: One thing you always hear about San Francisco is that it’s a phenomenally expensive place to live. How does a young songwriter get by in a town like that?
SJ: It is phenomenally expensive. I got by. I’m a hard worker, and I’ve been lucky to be able to make it as a musician. I did have milk-crates for furniture at times and bought food with pocket change, but I’ve been able to make it as a musician for the last couple of years, and for that I am so very thankful. I have incredible fans.
CS: How does the San Francisco music scene compare to the scene in Detroit, a town that has given birth to bands like Electric Six, The White Stripes and The Detroit Cobras?
SJ: I think a lot of people would like to say the music scenes are vastly different, but I don’t agree. I think that Detroit has a richer history in music, seeing as it is Motown! The music being made now in Detroit is perhaps harder to find just due to the fact that Detroit is comparatively a giant, geographically speaking, to San Francisco. In San Francisco you can walk around to different clubs and discover music fairly easily. In Detroit you have to dig. I like digging.
CS: What are some up-and-coming Detroit bands that we should be looking out for?
CS: Going back to your own music, Sarah, you’ve mentioned recently on your Facebook page that you have a lot of new music in store. What more can you tell us about the new music you’ve been working on lately?
SJ: Well, I’m working on my third album. I have a lot of the songs already written, and I’ve been doing video unplugged version demos of all of the new songs for my fans. My music is currently in a grittier phase – I am writing a lot of dark rock n’ roll songs that are much more autobiographical. I also have an official music video for “Judgement Day” (On In Black Robes) that will be released in early 2011, as well as a digital release album of remixes! And, most importantly, I’m planning a tour. I’ll be in a town near you soon!
Few artists making waves in 2010 have it goin’ on like Aloe Blacc. The kid looks like he makes his living as a Sam Cooke impersonator, he sings like some lost son of Tracy Chapman and Bill Withers, and he brings a fire to the mic that you only find in the bellies of guys like Sage Francis or Immortal Technique. Blacc’s voice bares all the guts and grit of the bad breaks and rough nights you need to live through to sing the stories he has to tell. Whereas Immortal Technique leans on obscenity as a gimmick through which his seething message burns through, Blacc needs only the ferocious beauty of the voice he was born with to make you think twice about the kind of world you consent to live in.
“If I share with you my story would you share a dollar with me?” asks the lowdown dreamer in “I Need a Dollar,” the knockout single from Blacc’s sophomore release with Stones Throw Records, Good Things. By the time Blacc’s done telling the tales of the characters he explores throughout the record, you’ll be eager to drop as many bones as you can to hear more–thanks in no small part to the uncommon restraint with which producers Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman allow those tales to be told. An instantly engaging piano riff and the occasional drizzle of brass is all Blacc’s voice needs to smoke “I Need a Dollar” down to the filter of its hard-luck confessions. A pipe organ jackknifes the mix on “If I” as Blacc’s plaintive vocals drown the song in their gush of cold rain, and Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me” plays somewhere off in the foggy distance of “Mama Hold My Hand,” a gorgeously understated ballad.
Withers is hardly the only echo of Blacc’s musical heritage to be heard on Good Things. You also hear Sam Cooke warning once again of the change that’s gonna come, you hear Al Green begging his long-gone baby to call him, you hear Solomon Burke damning the chains that bind him. “Soul” is a genre that has vanished since then into the glitzy vapor of contemporary R & B, a genre FM radio only bothers with if it’s dressed in lingerie and begging to get banged. And that, above all, is the reason that Aloe Blacc’s Good Things is such a warm and welcome surprise–a soul record that returns the genre to its rightful owners, a record that knows what’s up every time guys like Green or Burke step up to a mic in a town near you. This is soul for people who remember when the world first heard those Marvin Gaye records that now have their disciple in Aloe Blacc.
“My purpose for music is positive social change,” Blacc says. “Even if the music itself does not explicitly express anything that may signify positive social change, the product of the music will.” While Blacc is not too shy to toot his own horn–his profile at Stonesthrow.com daringly likens Good Things to Marvin Gaye’s watershed What’s Goin’ On–to suggest that no explicit call for “positive social change” exists in his music is to undersell his achievement.
The people you meet throughout Good Things are the people you know in your neighborhood–some of them, in fact, may be you. They are broke and scrounging for work wherever they may find it; they are stitching the busted seams of their hearts; they hear the whiskey bottle snicker as they try to stay clean one day at a time; they fall in love just as they fall through the cracks in their lives. They learn that “money don’t do everyone the same” and they walk the misted boundary between want and need. One too often looks just like the other in the songs Blacc sings–and in the lives of nearly anyone who hears them.
Blacc’s cynical eye calls to mind the bitter sarcasm with which Kanye West lambasted materialism and excess on his landmark 2004 LP, The College Dropout. But the difference here is that Blacc confesses where Kanye lectures; he shows you what Kanye is more content to merely tell you. The truth to be heard throughout Good Things–and there is plenty of it to be heard–is not necessarily anything you didn’t already know. You know it’s tough times in America, worse for some than they are for others, but there’s something remedial about staring into the mirror of another man’s soul and seeing your own reflection stare back at you, about crossing paths with the nameless others who know the dark moments of your days just as well as you do. That’s the crossroad these songs bring you to, the place where struggle makes brothers of us all.
Note: You can download Good Things from Stones Throw Records for just ten bucks here. Click here for Aloe Blacc’s FB page
Sarah June sings like a dead girl’s ghost. She’s got the kind of voice that sounds like the wind when it howls through door locks and window panes, the high-pitched and breathy wail of a drowned child’s spirit calling your name from the underworld. It’s the kind of voice you run from in your nightmares—not so much haunted as it is chilling—and the moment it raises a hair on your neck or a goose bump on your arm is precisely the moment June’s songs live in. To hear her sing for the first time is to never forget her, and the songs on In Black Robes, her sophomore LP released this past March on Silber Records, are no easier to get out of your mind than the name of the one who first broke your heart.
“This is the end, my friends / we’re all skeletons / with crossbones in our eyes / and wing-tipped shoes shined,” she sings. “I rattle like a poison snake / but that’s just the chance you take / when you get too close.” The song is called “Crossbones in Your Eyes,” one of the finest tracks to come out all year, and the second track on a record that plays like a goth-folk party in the graveyard of your mind. That’s where you’ll find Sarah June, rattling the bones of your fears and inviting you to delight in the mortality you’ve been sentenced to since the day you were born.
She’s cruising in her jet-black ’68 Caddy with blown speakers one minute and getting summoned to judgment day by a hooded man who points at her with his bony finger the next. “And now I’m just a lonely skeleton / in my coffin black / singin’ love songs to the grim reaper / I hope he brings me back,” she sings on “Judgment Day,” one of the record’s many standouts. Elsewhere she sings of peeling the label off of the bottle of regret amid a jazzy atmosphere of shuffling percussion and acoustic guitar that sounds like something off of Van Morrison’s Moondance, of the girl she studies from across the street as she ties her shoes–the one she loves “more than the girl on the second floor” or “the boy with the metal heart.” But mostly these songs gladly wander where your parents told you never to go, places where the night turns trees to “skeletons with filmy thin tired skin” and the people you cross paths with may be the last ones to see you alive.
In Black Robes is the work of an authentic American voice whose originality cannot be overstated. No one is making music like this–nobody. And while the songs may indulge an attraction to the mabacbre, they only do so with one eye fixed firmly on the influences that June weaves into her music like patches in some quirky quilt. She’s ballsy enough to drop an unmasked nod to Blue Oyster Cult (“don’t fear the reaper ‘cuz he’ll bring ya’ home”) just as she channels early ’60s girl-group pop with a shout out to The Crystals on “Mowtown,” her love letter to the Detroit where she cut her teeth playing gigs after dropping out of school as a teen (“and all the girls in the background sang / ‘da doo ron ron ron da doo ron ron”). She turns in a Jaynetts cover with “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” and reaches all the way back to turn-of-the-20th-century gospel on “Bluesy Melody”:
Well this is what they call life, baby
That bluesy melody that swings me
that sweet chariot that brings me home
June’s guitar playing exhibits the aplomb of Dave Van Ronk, and the songs on In Black Robes are just as unadorned as the music that high priest of folk made famous in Dylan’s prime (It was Van Ronk who taught Dylan to play “House of the Rising Sun,” later immortalized by The Animals). June summons more power from the snap of someone’s fingers on “The Reaper” or the shy intrusion of percussion on “Crossbones in Your Eyes” than a more ornate production ever could have. Her stripped-down delivery reveals a confidence in her craft that puts In Black Robes on par with some of the most rending acoustic albums ever made–Hurt Me by Johnny Thunders or Springsteen’s Atlantic City come especially to mind. It’s that cycle of songs you only encounter once every few years, performances of such sincerity that they need little more than a lone guitar and a good mic to play it for.
The songs almost never linger beyond the four-minute mark, and the record feels like it breezes by in the time it takes to say your prayers. And how fitting that is, because after June takes you on her trip to meet the ghosts that haunt the anguished landscapes where she finds her songs, you just might want to say a prayer or two.
Note: Silber Records offers a download of the album for just five bucks here. Click here for Sarah June’s FB page