Culturespill » Sparklehorse

Meet Peter Salett

7th July

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Every once in a while and usually out of the blue, an artist comes along who seems so uninterested in being anyone other than who he is that even some of your most favorite bands seem like pretenders by comparison. I think of J.J. Cale back in 2004 on his first tour in forever and with a rare new album in stores, uttering not a single word about the new material and playing not one track from the CD the whole damned night. I think of The Velvet Underground, Bell & Sebastian, Josh Rouse, Mark Knopfler—artists whose only objective is to be true to their own vision despite any cost that authenticity may entail. But it’s time to put those Bright Eyes CDs back on the rack and check out a new guy on the block (well, new-ish—you just haven’t heard of him yet): Peter Salett, whose promising new album, In the Ocean of the Stars, is due out July 22nd.

Even bands of such indisputable integrity as Velvet Underground or Belle & Sebastian can seem stuck in a bit of a shtick after a while; that you can so assuredly turn to them at any time to deliver exactly the kind of sound your latest mood craves is great, but it’s also the kind of reliability that mars the work of bands who cling to what works rather than challenging themselves to expand their creative arsenals. Soon, that favorite band of yours just doesn’t catch you off guard any more; every song’s move and gesture inhabits its own permanent room in your memory, and you start to wonder where the groove went.

That’s when you turn to artists like Peter Salett, whose work at once appeases and surprises, delivering a steady serving of cool-minded folk pop that’s laced with the occasional, unanticipated flourish—a distant twang of lap steel silvers the edges of the song, or the funky tear of an amped-up guitar fractures a ballad’s fragile beauty to reveal something even more powerful and, it turns out, wholly unexpected. Suddenly you remember what it felt like when you fell in love with that one favorite band all those years ago.


Peter Salett: “With Anybody Else,” After A While (2004)

Unlike most of those established favorites, though, there’s something mildly brazen in Salett’s delivery that promises to never go stale. Listening to an entire album of his—a rare feat in this age of the mp3—reveals a range of impressive breadth and confidence. “Heart of Mine,” featured on the soundtrack for 2000’s Ben Stiller flick Keeping the Faith (yes, Salett’s been at it for a while now—question is, where have you been?), smacks of a kind of wizened Ben Folds or the charged piano pop of Mark Malman. But just when a folk-pop masterpiece like “With Anybody Else” tempts you to suspect that you’ve got Salett’s number, he digs for the devastating depths of “What A Beautiful Dancer” from his upcoming Ocean of the Stars, an uncharacteristically rocking tune that incorporates elements of surf rock and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse into his bright acoustic brand of indie pop. It’s a trippy piece of rock ‘n roll that picks up where the last Sparklehorse album left off–think “Mountains” or “Knives of Summertime.”

Like “Heart of Mine,” Salett’s new single, “Miss You,” sleepwalks breezily into a gorgeous acoustic soundscape that floats through its too-brief couple of minutes by force of its own mildly embittered longing. As if to make the much-needed suggestion that “indie” isn’t necessarily synonymous with self-loathing, though, Salett is careful not to linger in those sentiments too long. He quickly rebounds (oh, the puns!) with the sweetened melancholy of spare pieces like “Safe” or the album-closing “Sunshine,” a tune that captures the wistful daydreams of Salett’s sound and songwriting as accurately as anything he’s put to tape. Ocean of the Stars doesn’t depart in any measurable way from Salett’s proven recipe of laid back folk-pop with the occasional edge you never saw coming, but that’s because he neither needs nor intends to change. He is who he is. And, anyway, with a musical palate as wide as his, there’s really nowhere to depart to that he hasn’t already been.

The Most Interesting Bands to See This Summer

8th June

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The summer touring season is upon us, and while the dull and faint of heart are once again lured to the same old Dave Matthews Band and Pearl Jam shows (Jesus, people, can the pot really be THAT good?), we thought we’d introduce you to a tentative “top ten” (er, um, eleven) list of the most interesting bands on tour this summer. We’d like to think we’re turning you on to some bands you’ve never heard of here, but we know you’re way cooler than that. So here it is, for what it’s worth:

Voodoo Glow Skulls: These guys are completely ridiculous, but ridiculous in a kind of once-in-a-lifetime spectacle sort of way. You know, the way you just HAVE to go see Dick Valentine scream about taking you to a gay bar one more time. It’s not quite “Rock ‘N Roll McDonald’s,” but it’s close enough. The Glow Skulls are what might happen if the Squirrel Nut Zippers took Dave Navarro to a polka party hosted by Everlast. Yes–seriously. They’re currently touring in support of their new LP, Southern California Street Music, featuring the single “Fire in the Dancehall” (Speaking of Dick Valtnine, he oughtta sue.) Find their tour dates here.

Colour Revolt: We’ve finally figured out the recipe for Colour Revolt: one part Modest Mouse, one part The Walkmen, one part Sparklehorse, and one part whatever the fuck you want–yields endless servings. These guys are quite possibly the most schizophrenic band on the scene right now. Just when you think you’ve got them tagged as another whiney whispering Emo outfit with tracks like “A New Family” or “Mattresses Underwater”, they transform into an offshoot of Sparta with a gritty and raw rock-out like “Circus.” They’re touring in support of their first LP, Plunder, Beg and Curse on the revered Fat Possum label; and a stream of their debut, eponymous EP is available on their website. Check out tour dates here, where you can also hear tracks from the new LP (we especially recommend “A Siren” and “Naked and Red“.)

Skulls
Voodoo Glow Skulls

Death Cab For Cutie: Meh. You know. Tour dates here.

Young Knives: Excellent indie pop that’s not afraid to show a fang now and then with tougher tracks like “Up All Night“–a kind of exceedingly English Hot Hot Heat–but only kind of. Speaking of which, this is perhaps the most shamelessly English group since Syd Barrett was cutting tracks like “Astronomy Domine” with Pink Floyd–“Knives” is British for “Knaves,” for instance, which is exactly how they got their band name. These tweed-clad Brits made a rather auspicious entry onto the scene by declaring themselves “Dead” on their debut EP, The Young Knives . . . Are Dead. But they’re not, you see. Last year they were nominated for the really important-sounding “Nationwide Mercury Prize,” and now they’re giving geek rock a good name with their strong new LP Superabundance, which they’re currently supporting with a series of summer gigs. Check out dates here, where you can also catch a streaming audio of their new album.

Vampire Weekend: Right. Them. Tour dates here.

Sleepercar: More excellent indie pop but with a vague hankering for country. But don’t let that bullshit fool you–these guys are the side project of Jim Ward (of Sparta and At The Drive-In fame), even though they put out albums called West Texas, a title that’s about as instructive of the band’s creative origins as a White Stripes album called “Nashville” would be. And while Ward and the boys pull off the whole alt-country thing as convincingly as an Uncle Tupelo album, it’s in their departures from that sound, as on the blistering “Sound the Alarm,” that things really start to get interesting. Tour dates here. And check out their video for “A Broken Promise“–good stuff!

 

Young Knives
Young Knives

MGMT: We fucking LOVE these guys. If you want to know why, then check out the story we did about them a while back. Or just go to their myspace page, where you can get tour dates AND hear how cool they are. Wow.

The Boxing Lesson: As we said in our recent review of The Boxing Lesson’s Wild Streaks and Windy Days, these guys confirm 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.” Check out tour dates at their myspace page.

Detroit Cobras: If you don’t already know about these people, then it’s about god-damned time. This is balls-to-the-wall, no frills garage rock of the highest order–with a penchant for delicious covers of songs so old you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to them otherwise. It’s brought to you by the sexiest voice rock ‘n roll has heard in decades–the incomparable Rachel Nagy–whose vocals will slap a sloppy lipstick kiss across your face, smack your ass raw and call you queer. And you’ll LIKE it, too. Tour dates.

Raconteurs: As depressing, boring and unnecessary as their debut may have been (and it was), their new LP actually has us believing there’s a reason for their existence–no easy task given our loathsome indifference to the crap they served up the first time around. Check out our recent review of their new album here, and, while you’re at it, get a load of their summer tour dates.

Hiatt Live
John Hiatt

John Hiatt: So maybe he’s old enough to be your dad, but after sitting through one of his shows, you’ll also understand that he’ll kick the shit out of your dad, too. This guy doesn’t fuck around. Check out our review of his new album, Same Old Man. And see tour dates here.

Visions of Johanna: On the Hunt for the Next Great Songwriter

7th May

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen in 1969

“Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can see it in the way she smiles.”
–Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna

Not too long ago, I lived the life of an alienated lover of books and music, awakening from the baffled and brutal slumber of a high school experience largely dominated by the anxious desperation of a yearned-for belonging, a need that eludes so many who navigate those tortured and cliquish halls on the way to a college experience where the freaks find their kind and settle into an initial notion of who they are. I spent hours on end each evening trading banter with a fellow Leonard Cohen lover about the nuanced passages of obscure bootlegs of his, musical diamonds mined from the cluttered shelves of overlooked record shops on Macdougal or Thomspon in the village, a storied neighborhood in the bowels of New York City where Dylan and Van Ronk once ruled as kings of a counterculture whose reverberations we weather to this day.

No, not too long ago at all. I recall pulling off to the side of a rural road in Long Island as Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” played on the stereo, my eyes literally bloating with held-back tears as I reeled in the throes of a gut-wrenching break-up while Cohen sang softly about “The sisters of mercy who are not departed or gone,” how “they waited for me when I thought that I just can’t go on,” who “brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.” With what effortless precision had Cohen identified exactly the note and notion I needed to hear at that moment–a possibility of hope and survival found only in song. I recall hanging on the line in silence with that above-mentioned friend as we listened in reverent stillness to Cohen’s “Let Us Sing Another Song, Boys” from his devastating masterpiece of melancholy, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. How only our hushed but vaguely audible breaths stood between ourselves and the song, a wild whirlwind of singers twirling the tune around their haunted voices, a wiry wail as undisciplined as it is sincere.

I recall many cold nights driving through downtown Manhattan, a winter rain thrumming the windshield as I struggled again to squeeze into an only parking space in that sleepless town, fleeing my car to wade through the weather with the collar of a worn leather coat popped to keep my wet neck warm on the way to another cappuccino at Cafe Dante, the historic cafe on MacDougal just across the street from a loft Dylan lived in thirty years before. I recall how many nights that weather brought to mind the song Dylan tattooed on the American memory in a voice edged with cigarettes and dust, lines about how “the harmonica plays the skeleton keys and the rain,” or the way “Louise holds a handful of rain tempting you to defy it.”

Dylan in ‘66
Dylan in London, 1966

These are the lines against which any more recent songwriter’s work must be held. They are memories that only the best-made songs call us to connect our lives to, and any aspiring masters of song who shy away from that great challenge are doomed to shrink in the shadow of a history they might otherwise have enriched. When bands like Death Cab For Cutie storm the scene with hailed writers like Ben Gibbard to offer a latest gem by the name of “I Will Possess Your Heart”–the title alone one of far less subtlety and tact than anything either of the aforementioned songwriters would ever even ponder–it is this fertile heritage he confronts. Lines like “How I wish you could see the potential of you and me” or “I know you will find love” read like phantom impostors by comparison, knee-jerk lines scribbled on a napkin in crayon and shoved in the pocket of a shirt that’s later tossed to the hamper and forgotten. It is a difficult but hardly arguable fact that one commits an act of blasphemy in pairing figures like Gibbard, however sincere or loved they may be, with the predecessors that paved the way to their fame all those years ago. Such undue claims to glory suggest that younger fans mistake a catchy tune for lyrical intensity, trading substance for surface in a fit of confused adoration.

This is not to say that those capable of hanging with such esteemed company do not exist in the industry’s current and bountiful crop of songwriters. Songwriters of that magnitude are and must necessarily be few and far between, but they are apparent to those looking hard enough. Joe Henry, for example, who is married to, of all people, the sister of the Material Girl herself, continues to produce one brilliant exhibition of lyrical mastery after another, particularly the trilogy of Trampoline, Fuse and Scar, albums teeming with an abundance of gripping language dressed in Henry’s unique and ethereal jungle of sound. Henry, producer of recent projects by Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello and, most notably, a grammy-winning foray into soul that produced Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me and the resurrection of Bettye Lavette, is a sought-after collaborator for a reason: he has quietly developed one of the most respectable oeuvres music has seen since Tom Waits’s Swordfish/Raindogs/Frank’s Wild Years package in the mid ’80s.

Joe Henry
Joe Henry

“Like she was the fever I wear like a crown,” Henry sings of some sought-after love in “Like She Was A Hammer,” “Like she was the raging flower in the brick yard . . . like she was Roosevelt’s funeral in the street.” Henry plows language to dig beneath the surface of the banter that passes for songwriting in a Death Cab tune, unearthing the raw jewelry of words to convey a far more persuasive sense of the helplessness and need that Gibbard reaches for in his newest single. He so quickly finds and exposes the pumping heart of the song that he hardly leaves you a second to breathe before you’re thrown into an empty room with nothing but your own wounded memories to get you through the hour. “I wonder how you turned out the stars,” Henry sings on the spare and fragile “Lock and Key,” “I hear your laugh / like falling railway cars . . . God only knows how I love you / but God and his ghost / and his roadhouse crew / ran me out of town on a silver rail / free at last and begging for jail.” Now that’s helplessness. That’s desire. That is song.

Others, like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, bring a maniacal abandon to the song that reduces so many to timid pretenders, singing of “the toothless kiss of skeletons / in summer hail” on his brilliant Wonderful Life LP. “I’m the king of nails,” he concludes as a grunged-up crescendo of guitars and pounding drums blasts the song to hell. Linkous’s talents are evident in the company it attracts. Tom Waits chimes in on “Dog Door,” while PJ Harvey lends her gut-deep wail to the scorching “Piano Fire.” “Every hair on your head is counted,” he whispers on Goodmorning Spider, an album recorded not long after medics literally brought him back from the dead amid a paralyzing overdose that left him nearly crippled, “You are worth hundreds of sparrows.”

Ben Gibbard
Ben Gibbard

The greatest songwriters of a generation do not always fall in our laps as thunderously as they may have forty years ago, when Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell torched the world with a revolutionary fusion of pop and poetry that no one dared attempt before. In an industry far more saturated with underground talent vying for a platform than the likes of Cohen or Dylan had to contend with in their day, too often the finest talent is kept away from the radio and crowded off the stage.

The songs of Henry and Linkous will not be heard on your local FM station today, and they will never pose for the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone. But they are without argument producing work of vastly superior quality to the majority of the sludge that passes for song on the scene today. Do yourself a favor–download a tune or two by either of these geniuses. Then listen to the new Death Cab album. As beautiful and brave as Narrow Stairs may be–and it is most certainly a commendable piece of work by a good band–still I challenge you tell me who the great songwriter is. I’ll be waiting patiently for your answer.