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So Far: Best Albums of 2008

11th August

Now that we’re nearing the final third of the year [insert “how time flies” cliche here], the minds of all music dorks worth their weight in vinyl will gradually turn to the usual “best of” lists. We thought we’d put together a preliminary list of possibilities that may or may not make the final cut in December, but that’s the point: we, too, have already forgotten the names of those albums that came out in February and earned the fleeting rapture of our “this is the greatest album since OK Computer!” accolades, only to be tucked into the CD shelf and disregarded in favor of more recent thrills. So we’ve revisited that shelf of too-easily forgotten glories to take a second glance at CDs which, given the pace of things these days, will already be SO “last season” come Thanksgiving. But even if that sorry fate awaits these albums, at least they will have gotten their due here, in our not-so-middle-of-the-year list of 2008’s “Best Albums” contenders–in no particular order, by the way–what’s the difference between the fifth best and the 6th best album of the year? That’s right–nothing. So what’s the point? Check it out:

The Gossip: Live in Liverpool
000000727744.jpgNot since albums like Get Yer Ya-Yas Out or Lou Reed’s Rock ‘N Roll Animal have live albums been as much of an event as The Gossip’s Live in Liverpool. For starters–the title. Come on, what rock band today DOESN’T want to put out alive album called “Live in fucking Liverpool?” OK, maybe that would have been an even better title, but try this one out: Rick Rubin thought so much of this band’s power as a live unit that he declared their show the best he’d seen “in five years.” Coming from the mouth of Rick Rubin, that’s basically akin to comparing this band to Jesus. And rightfully so: now that even The White Stripes have gone all “art rock-y” on us with the truly icky Icky Thump, and The Black Keys suffered more than a modest share of polish at the otherwise skilled hands of Danger Mouse, The Gossip proudly (and loudly) pick up the slack behind the Mama Cass of Punk (Beth Ditto) with her rockin’ posse in tow. Just the first slap or two of Hannah Blilie’s drums on downright anthems like “Standing in the Way of Control” or the magnificently powerful “Your Mangled Heart” are enough to infect you with an unshakable love of l0-fi fury. There’s a reason why Rick Rubin decided on a live album as The Gossip’s first upon signing with Sony subsidiary label, Music with a Twist: they may be the best live band on the planet right now.

The Heavy: Great Vengeance and Furious Fire
0000131552_175.jpgThe world hasn’t heard music with this much groove since RHCP lured George Clinton into a studio to lay down some tracks with them on their underappreciated Freaky Styley album 23 years ago–you know, back before the Peppers became “arteests.” As the funktastic “That Kind of Man” explodes with a relentlessly massive sound that brings to mind some dude straight out of the late 1970s with a mile-high afro and an early boombox half his size clutched to one ear as he struts right by you up the block, it becomes clear that The Heavy aren’t taking shit from anybody. That’s probably why they include “big bad wolves just doing what they do” among their band members on MySpace. There really isn’t a more accurate description of their sound than that. These boys (and one girl–clutching an axe with a murderous stare on their myspace page, no less) are here for the long haul. The Heavy’s sound is Tom Waits backed by The Stooges, Muddy Waters back from the Dead to make an album with Danger Mouse (because Danger Mouse SO needs another project on his hands.) These guys are bringing taste back in a big damned hurry, and judging from the friends they keep on MySpace, it’s hard to conceive of a more fitting band to do it–The Sonics, Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, Tom Waits, and even Waits’s great label Anti. These people know a good groove when they hear one, and they’re threatening to bring plenty more of their own for good measure. Check ‘em out.

MGMT: Oracular Spectacular
51peen1ptyl_aa240_.jpgLike, DUH. If, halfway through the first rack of Oracular, it already feels like you’ve taken one too many sips of hallucinogenic mushroom tea while stepping inside another episode of VH1’s “Where Are They Now,” especially the part where the featured “artists” do lots of drugs, get fat and completely forgotten by the world, and then try to not be forgotten anymore by making really terrible music in their middle age for a “comeback” tour attended by thirteen-and-a-half people worldwide, that’s as it should be: You’re listening to MGMT, a duo of self-described “mystic paganists” devoted to “opening the third eye of the world.” The album’s first track, “Time to Pretend,” which was featured in the that movie 21 about some MIT kids who took Vegas to the cleaners by learning to count cards, takes aim at every one of those VH1 cliches with the sharp arrow of the band’s notorious sarcasm. Drenched in addictive hooks that marry Prince and The Flaming Lips in a union of space-funk and soul that somehow captures exactly the sound the band describes on their MySpace page– “surf jungle country”–Oracular delivers a sound that’s as fresh in 2008 as Beck’s was in 1994, leaping onto the scene with the same “we don’t care” abandon that “Loser” brought to the biz back then. And people are “getting into it”–lots of them. It’s no accident that the album vaguely echoes The Flaming Lips. Oracular IS produced, after all, by David Fridmann, the captain at the console for many a Flaming Lips album. Roll Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with some speed-laced nicotine and you’ve got the addictive mindfuck that is Oracular Spectacular.

Bridges and Powerlines: Ghost Types
bridgesnl0.jpgThough the brand of power-pop these guys peddle reveals a compelling brew of influences, the results are no less their own. Tunes like “Uncalibrated” or “Middle Child” are so bright you feel like you’ve just stared directly into the sun after sleeping in a hole in the ground for a week in winter (no wonder they used to call themselves “Sunspots”.) The music explodes in your ear with the relentless burst of a synthesizer that laces the song’s manic drums and guitar with an enthusiasm as focused as it is unhinged. No band has sounded this damned happy to be making music since The Thrills put out their debut “we are California” LP, So Much For the City. Equal parts Acrade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running” and Wilco’s “I’m Always in Love” with a tinge of Wolf Parade, most of the material on Bridges and Powerlines’ new album, Ghost Types, betrays the “love of the three-minute pop song” they say brought them together. With harmonies as soaring as the hooks and a psychedelic disposition that so perfectly suits the vaguely snotty abandon of taut rockers like “Half A Cent,” the band rarely lingers long in the unmapped musical terrain they explore. They prefer instead to wet their feet in the pond of your mind and run, leaving you to wonder whether what you just heard was of this world or the glittering residue of some wild and half-remembered dream. In the end, though, it really doesn’t matter–just as long as there’s more where that came from.

Sleepercar: West Texas
sleepercar-west_texas.jpgWhat an extraordinary exhibition of influence these songs offer: the echo of a latter day Lloyd Cole album drives a spike through the broken heart of “Heavy Weights,” the vaguely new wave “Sound the Alarm”–perhaps the album’s finest track–almost prepares you for Hall & Oates to take the mike and belt one out about a woman who only comes out at night as Mark Knopfler straps on a guitar and awaits his part. And if none of the material here really approximates Jim Ward’s vision of a rootsy American rock album as closely as he may have desired–Ward still sounds very much like the lead vocalist of Sparta throughout West Texas, the debut album from this dainty little side project–it’s in his aspiration for a sound so alien to the music he’s known for that brings him–and his listeners–to some unexpected creative landscape where willows drip with a melting and late-season snow as an iron and sweeping sky rushes the day to dusk. You lift the collar of your coat to combat a dank chill in the air–one of the last of the season–and you grin and walk right through it as the year closes in on so many warmer days. Only “Wednesday Nights” and “Fences Down” really hit the alt-country mark Ward seems to set his sights on here, songs that could quite easily pass themselves off as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot outtakes. But, again, it’s in the album’s misfires that something genuinely fascinating occurs. Don’t miss this record; it’s as close to a guaranteed pleasure as we may have heard all year.

Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely
raconteurs_consolers_of_the_lonely_cover.jpg“Needless to say, I was more than skeptical of the newest Raconteurs project. I accept and love that Jack White is a man of many escapades, including plastic camera and speaker manufacture, collaboration with the Gods (Loretta Lynn and Bob Dylan), cell phone protestation, and home movies of snoring band mates (sorry Meg). With the exception of the premier Raconteurs album, he hits all these ventures out of the park. Therefore, I gave him an open, yet highly analytical second chance. Consolers of the Lonely, HOT DAMN! I’m sorry my lord for ever doubting your ability. I grabble at your feet in repentance! The Kinks got busy with Icky Thump and conceived Consolers of the Lonely, plain and simple. This album delivers Jack White’s signature raw energy viciously burned with blistering horns and riffs to rival Zeppelin. The band let the album speak for itself, doing zero promotion and allowing the content to leak on iTunes and the like. Bravo boys. White and company have created radio-soluble tunes capable of pushing facileness overboard. So long Linkin Park and Flobots! This album is a must for summer and pairs perfectly with open-windowed driving.” — Sara Mrozinski

The Boxing Lesson: Wild Streaks and Windy Days
imagephp5.jpg As if any further proof was needed, Wild Streaks and Windy Days confirms once again that to label a band is to kill a band. It is too easy to dismiss The Boxing Lesson as a post-punk new wave act and move blithely on to your next victim. But as Whoopsy Magazine puts it, “there’s a lot more going on here . . . catchy backing vocals, surreal lyrics, and a modern pop sensibility stand out the most.” But The Boxing Lesson aren’t just another upstart “indie” band pushing the praise of rags called “Whoopsy.” The Onion calls them “a hard-charging trio,” and The Austin Chronicle praises them for “opening a Pandora’s box of psychedelia.” The Boxing Lesson take us somewhere genuinely new with Wild Streaks and Windy Days; and if they have to fumble through a jewel chest of prior eras to get there, they never look back so long as to undermine a vision of their own. Oh, and check out our recent interview with the band!

Josh Rouse: Country Mouse, City House
joshrouse.jpg If much of Rouse’s music is no heavier than a breeze at the beach in spring–particularly on the supine Subtitlio he recorded after splitting with his wife and defecting to Spain (as good a reason as any to be “supine”)–it is no less substantive because of it. And anyway, just when you think you’ve got this cool cat cornered, an album like 2005’s Nashville thunders with a vaguely unsettled dirge like “Why Won’t You Tell me What,” a spare and thumping chant that delivers the kind of bluesy acrimony you’d expect of a middle-aged loungesinger at some watering hole up the block, positioning his 14th cigarette in an ashtray on the lid of a beaten piano that’s knifed with the names of a thousand long-gone couples. Amid the apparent serenity of Rouse’s more recent material–breezy tunes like “Quiet Town” or the flawless “Hollywood Bass Player” from 2007’s Country Mouse album–it’s this defiant strand of discontent that completes the complex character his songs reveal, a ballsy volatility that so many songwriters might be wise to consider.

Young Knives: Superabundance
3305744m.jpgWhen Franz Ferdinand followed up their brilliant, eponymous debut with that frenzied and self-conscious clunker of a second album, You Could Have it So Much Better (how right they were), it seemed that we had another one-trick pony on our hands, that what glories they had brought us in 2004 were not the kind of thing that comes around every year–or every ten, for that matter. As much as I hate to describe one band by discussing another–comparisons do a lot more to confine bands than they do to illuminate them–Young Knives, a geek-rock outfit out of England that look and sound every bit as “Young” as their band name suggests, are both picking up the torch that Franz left behind and taking it to the places we expected them to go. If Ray Davies is correct in his theory that a band’s third album is really the one that shows you whether or not the kids are for real, then Superabundance, the third Young Knives album (if we’re counting their 2002 EP–and why not?), documents the arrival of a potentially great band. Geek or no geek, though, give the “Terra Firma” video a little look if you doubt for a second the comparisons to Franz. The song is an incorrigible fit of post-punk revival sweetness that drives relentlessly through an adrenaline-overdrive of manic guitars laced over a backbone of disco that puts a lot into perspective: Why, for instance, a previous label of theirs was called “Shifty Disco,” or why an acoustic take on “Turn Tail,” one of several singles the album has spawned, was recorded directly to vinyl all in one take at London’s Westbourne Studios–something that hasn’t been done commercially since people like The Partridge Family could actually make a living in music. In other words, it’s been a long, long time.

Everlast: Love, War, and the Ghost of Whitey Ford
coverletters.jpgOK, so maybe this album hasn’t been released yet. But dammit, it should have been! And anyway, it’s gonna be good! At least we can now hear Everlast’s mash-up cover of Johnny Cash’s legendary “Folsom Prison Blues,” which is slated to appear on this long-delayed new album. The album’s currently on deck for a September 24 release–which means absolutely nothing, of course, because the album has been on deck for a release for months to no avail, pissing Everlast off to no end and infecting his fans with a brutal case of rumor-mill blues. And that’s no fun at all–just ask AC/DC fans. While the “Letters Home From The Garden of Stone” single is strong, making waves on iTunes for months now, Everlast’s cover of “Folsom Prison” is little short of brilliant. Check it out here.

Being Erik Schrody: The Resurrection of Everlast

12th May

Everlast & Friends
Everlast & Friends

“I hated every record company I was ever on.” — Everlast

It’s a lesson learned by many before him, and often far more painfully: You sign what seems to be a phat deal with some big-wig label like the storied Island Def Jam, bust your ass on what you think is the best damned piece of music you’ve ever put to wax in an attempt to conquer the music world once and for all, and hand it over to the powers that be, only to find that the names and faces in those high offices changed over night, and that they neither recognize nor need you. Too many great bands, most notably the unsung Vulgar Boatmen, identify this very narrative as the circumstance that crushed their dreams, condemning great talent to hopeless obscurity. Such is the case with Mr. Erik Schrody, AKA Everlast, and his elusive “new album,” Love, War, and the Ghost of Whitey Ford.

“I turned in what I thought was one of the better albums of my life when I was signed to Island Def Jam with Lyor Cohen,” Schrody explains in an embittered recollection of what happened to his last LP, the brilliant White Trash Beautiful, “But a couple weeks after I signed, Lyor got his offer from Warner, and the new team that came in basically couldn’t give two shits about me.” Cohen, a behind-the-scenes hip-hop overlord responsible for the development of such talent as The Beastie Boys, Foxy Brown, LL Cool J, Nas and Run DMC, also endures the nickname “Lansky” after the Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky.

New Everlast Video: “Letters Home From the Garden of Stone”

There’s a reason for that: Cohen’s storied career as CEO of various big-time labels is not without incident, as he has publicly tussled with the likes of P Diddy, TVT Records, and the FBI and the NYPD, who raided his Murder Inc. Records offices in 2001 “as part of a federal probe of label founder Irv Gotti’s ties to drug lord Kenneth ‘Supreme’ McGriff.” It was only business when Cohen left Island Def Jam to join Rick Rubin and former cohorts on the board at Warner Music Group. But it left Schrody out of business, kicked to the curb in unforeseen anonymity with perhaps the most devastating LP he’d ever made dumped back in his lap as the newbies at Def Jam washed their hands of him.

White Trash Beautiful, the album Def Jam’s new faces promptly ignored upon entering the company, is a stirringly merciless musical document of heartbreak and loss laced over one irresistible beat after another. Whatever Schrody began with his megahit “What It’s Like” found its fullest expression on WTB, and it made, quite simply, for the finest music of the man’s life. Now, though, he had some real heartbreak to sing about, and no one was about to tell him that he didn’t know what it’s like. “I swore I wouldn’t sign another deal like that again,” Schrody vows, “I found new management that saw what I wanted to do and found a deal that was tolerable. Now the pressure to sell millions isn’t on me. I can sell modest numbers, have fun and make good music, and still be successful.” But if Schrody thought the hard road he’d been walking ended there, he was sadly mistaken–things wouldn’t quite turn out as easily as all that. As anyone who’s lived a few years knows, they rarely do.

Not long after signing this “tolerable deal,” Schrody morphed into AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, gushing from the mouth time and again about the imminent arrival of a new album that turned out not to be so imminent after all (AC/DC’s long-rumored new album, coincidentally, just got some serious street cred in a recent announcement by the band’s own label–yes, it’s finally upon us. Like, for real.) First Schrody’s new LP was due by St. Patty’s Day, then sometime in April, then sometime in May, and then given an allegedly hard date of June 24th that was quickly replaced by another hard date of September 23rd. So in other words, Everlast fans, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.

Everlast: “Blinded by the Sun,” White Trash Beautiful, 2004

“I have opened my mouth one too many times about the release of the album,” Shrody conceded this past March, “to the point where I feel like the boy who cried wolf my damned self.” After shipping off his new single, “Letters Home From the Garden of Stone,” to about 200,000 email addresses with an unlikely mash-up cover of Johnny Cash’sFolsom Prison Blues” on the way, Schrody’s striking back against oblivion in the kind of grassroots campaign you might expect of an upstart rap dreamer. Orchestrating the album art and, apparently, the street team himself, Schrody says he “took for granted the amount of work that goes into releasing an album . . . now that I’m doing it myself I’m realizing how hard it can be to get everyone and thing lined up.” Translation: “Holy shit, this is fucking hard.”

“It’s been 3 1/2 years or so since I put out a record,” Everlast reminds fans who are all too familiar with that sad fact, “so I am just trying to take advantage of every opportunity to make an impact of some kind in a world with very little attention span.” If that’s all he’s going for, then so far, so good, as the “Letters Home” single is making waves on local radio by force of its own indisputable strength, gathering 1,000 downloads on iTunes in just 48 hours. It’s no simple song and dance putting out an album on your own after relying on the boundless resources of major labels like Def Jam for most of your career. “If you hear it on your local station call and request it again,” he says of “Letters Home,” a hard-hitting and funky expression of empathy with soldiers fighting in Iraq that serves as the album’s debut single.

Though Schrody plans to release the album on his own label, he explains in a particularly forlorn post on his blog that he must “still rely on marketing money from my partners and distributors, and they felt that June 24th was too soon for them to set up the record properly.” The post goes on to reveal an inevitable and apparently irrepressible fit of resignation, helplessness and anger. “I don’t know what else to say . . . I have been waiting to put this record out for five months now and the stress is wearing me down a bit. I don’t know what or who to believe at the moment. I don’t feel very empowered . . . if they don’t release then I just might give the fucking thing away.” Exactly. Culturespill memo to Schrdoy: go the Brian Jonestown Massacre route and put the damned thing up for free online, abandon the new songs to a hopeful fate in radio land, and rake up the cash you lost on tour instead. If ever a case was made for using the web to eliminate the middle man and bring your music directly to your audience for free on your own, this is most certainly it.