Adam Strong

Review: Hotel Lights – Firecracker People

In Record Review on July 6, 2009 at 10:30 pm

This review was originally published on on 8/18/08

The downer vocals, the whispers of regret, it’s all hitting me as I listen to the opening strains of “Dream State Flying”, one of the tracks on Firecracker People, by Hotel Lights, a project helmed by Ex Ben Folds Five Darren Jesse. In this song I can see clear through the Summer to the Winter, with me standing outside that old brick building I used to work in. Decked out in a sweater and blue jeans, I watch the wind push the sinewy branches on the trees.

Even from the first time I listened to Firecracker People it only took a few lovely drops of piano for me to start warming up to it. The touchstones are all there: a comforting falsetto voice, tasteful production, and a solid acoustic guitar strum that occasionally builds to electric. It brings to mind an image of a warm candle shining light in the darkness of an old barn. And like an old barn, the foundation is rock solid, with everything else worn down and on the verge of falling apart.
On Firecracker People I hear the built in wintry scenery the songs contain: the roads that go on for miles, the dried cracks in the muddy ground, the endless snowdrifts. That’s not to say it’s a depressing record, but there’s more than a shred of melancholy to be found here, and if we can grab a hold of that melancholy we’ll be amazed at the places they take us, to those dark things we don’t dare think about.

It can take you back to that thing you did last Summer that you never told anybody about, to that affair you thought you covered up, to that person you were selfish with, to that relationship you willingly destroyed.

There’s a sense of recovery in this record, a sense of beginning again after a great moment of tumult, a regrouping. How a song can fit that mood so well, with just a flicker of rain, the vocals coming in and out of the mix, and instrumentation that bottoms out into a tide pool. The guitar sounds fill in the plucky holes just enough to support the melody before the whole song drops away.

In these post-millennial, post everything days, its nice to rely on this sturdy-as-an-old-house record, so close and personal, its like flipping through an old photo album. In one of the pictures I am holding up to the camera a homemade bow and arrow made out of construction paper. I made it in the middle of a two-week blanketing Minnesota blizzard. Another picture is taken from the diving board of an opulent Miami pool and is faded at its edges like so many childhood memories are.

The progression from Summer to Fall and Winter is in this record in spades. It’s in the hushed vocals that bring to mind hardwood floors of New England, a lace that radiates around Fall, that old heartbreak in the air, the northerly winds that carry disappointments and regrets, rolling delicately towards the granddaddy of depression time, Christmas.

With a simple guitar-bass-drum contingent and great understated vocals, Hotel Lights are about as cloying as an unassuming bed and breakfast. They might not dazzle immediately, but come winter you’ll crave its down-home comforts.

The pace quickens on “Norina”, an up-tempo number that threatens to rock and finally fulfills its promise at the end of the song. “Why should you count the days on your hand?” He asks over delicate strumming, inviting us back to his place and pouring us a whiskey, neat.

“Blue Always Finds Me” is an assurance that no matter where I go in this life, the blue fog of Winter will follow me, and each Winter I’ll come back here, to relive it all over again.

 “Firecracker People” is a sweeping, lilting ballad an exploration of some of the more destructive elements in our lives. We see that these Firecracker People are eternally “going off all the time” and through this song, we see a whole world constructed with bits of string, songs with characters cut out and propped up, a living diorama with tempers flaring up and blowing out, all framed by a memory of that familiar piano, the ghosts of Ben Folds Five creaking into the sound. It sums up the record nicely, a companion to get you through the coldest, bleakest months of the year.


Review: Felice Brothers: Yonder is the Clock

In Record Review on April 17, 2009 at 9:59 pm

This review was originally published on on 4/17/09


There’s something about the act of discovering a new band, of making room in your mind for a new act, the character in a singer’s voice, a new recognition, an understanding that starts the first time you hear and artist’s work and is reconsidered for every track and for every note you hear of theirs afterwards, and with each record comes this anticipation that the record is going to be as good, if not better than the last one.

Sometimes it takes a committed act, on behalf of the listener, as sometimes what initially sounds like a disappointment, ends up being something remarkable later on down the line when given the advantage the distance and time to mature and appreciate.

The way in which a record changes in the ears of the listener says as much about who we are as people, and how generous the listeners mind is to receiving this new information.

The last time I wrote a review for this band, I had, only recently, come across a record that only comes along every once in a while, maybe once every two years or so, but its hard to recapture the hold they had on me, the first time I heard “Scarecrow” sung by the Felice Brothers bassist, Christmas, the way the tone in his was new to me, my brain making room for a new act, a new voice.

I saw them live first, and that night introduced me to so many compelling characters, and if you could have seen these guys play live on that tour, and seen them, drunk in the alleys of the cities they played in, lived out their characters, the ones they sang about, there wasn’t any difference between the guys in the band who would, like Kerouac or Ken Kesey, traveled thousands of miles to make revelry, these five gentlemen who make up the Felice Brothers, they were and are the real deal, the true weird Americans, the kind that don’t exist anymore, an analog band for the digital age, they are the leftovers of vaudeville when we thought there weren’t any left.

And with that brings the variety of songs, and how their songs seemed to have been worked on for years, maybe carried around in their short bus they use to tour the country with, slips of songs bursting out of their cases, and with all of the knockouts on “The Felice Brothers, ” They seemed to have so many up their sleeve, and each of them as grand as the tracks on their last album. I thought they had hours of this top shelf class a material, and while “Yonder is the Clock” still boasts a few heavy hitters, it feels like a genuine come down.

And just like an old wino, inebriated on Wild Irish Rose and time, The Felice Brothers seem to be eternally looking back instead of forward, living in the lazy haze of broken time, only this time the words are too far gone, and the wino has lost a bit of the poet in him. For the songs on “Yonder…” are submerged, buried in ice, and the band is like a a drunk slumped in the alley, and while all of its living history might still be there, the drunk is nearly comatose.

Things start off with the lurching, “The Big Suprise” and once again, we are back in that special place, there’s an odd amount of wisdom in Ian Felice’s vocals, as the song is sung with the patience of a sage witnessing the passing of an epoch, looking back on moonshine bill passages, carpetbaggers, all the way back to the first settlers. It’s the kind of opener that’s an underhanded punch, whose weight you don’t feel until you walk away from it awhile.

The unpredictable nature continues on “Penn Station”, a rousing drunken chorus which lets the camera zoom back to see the whole drunken cast and crew of rascals and roustabouts, pulling out all the stops on their eternal vaudevillian tour.

“Buried in Ice” is barely sung straight, a-one-last-track-before-we-hit-the-sack kind of track, an old rousing chorus, punctuated by the kind of vocal gestures a drunk uses, emphasizing the wrong syllables, middles of sentences taking on a special meaning. And the spare piano in the background, lingering there, providing shape to the form of the block of ice that carries the question, is a lovely lifting thing.

“Cooperstown” succeeds in the way that all good Felice Brothers gems succeed, sounding like a song memorized several hundred times but you just cant think of at the moment, conjuring up the old glory days of baseball parks, the burnt acrid smell from after the fireworks have all been lit, the smell of sulfur when they take the lights down.

Four records in the Felice Brothers sound like they are not so much ready for a victory lap as they are for a nice lie down. But for all the distance of the first half of the record, the second half finds it’s footing, dragging its slumped carcass across the finish line for an even draw. The songs on the second half have melodies with enough muster to allow their voices slide above their stupor long enough to cement a memory, and “Yonder…” begins to find its focus.

“Cooperstown”, “Rise and Shine”, “All When We Were Young”, “Katie Dear”, there is a heavy dose of loss here, a sense that by traveling as much as they do, they feel the need to touch down on the darker side of things, to linger long enough to kiss it goodbye.

Like the song “All When we Were Young” shows, these characters might be drunkenly alive, but there’s an odd tone of somber reflection, a life of regret, of having to grow up and tell the same stories, but the stories and their joints don’t move like they used to.

And it’s refreshing how these songs are still deeply American, the kind of old weird America, the kind of history of the various wanderers, junkies, hobos and transients we’ve loved, like Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg sung through the hard-scrabbled sweetness of John Prine. And we know with the Felice Brothers, we know the possibility of American Lore will continue to create new voices such as these. Mark Twain is a perfect reference point, as “Yonder is the Clock” is an old Mark Twain phrase, but as with later Twain, our heroes don’t burn as bright as they once did, but they just might have another “Huck Finn” in their canon.

And by the end of the record, we get past the last songs, as their melodies fade from memory, we realize something, that as much as the record turns in the second half, one thing it cannot quite replicate is how these songs don’t cut as deep, don’t draw the listener in these stories. Maybe it’s a noted step back, even though they can still produce the goose bumps-on-your-arm-awe that “Cooperstown” has in spades. To nail such a specific shade, a burnt twist of melancholy, means they are still tapped into the bombed out shacks or trailer parks, the vein of that heavenly American night.

If the last record was the elaborate exposition, then these are the doldrums, things a band might have done if they didn’t have such a good time leaning on what it is they do well, which is to trade in a certain kind of nostalgia, music for people too young to have stopped drinking when Tom Waits did, who won’t care to spot the influences and will just take it straight up. Which is where future listens will pay off, and there’s much to be had here, but compared directly to their previous work “Yonder is the Clock” is an album better know for what could have been rather than a breakout like their last, self-entitled record, “The Felice Brothers.” the one my mind will always have room for.

Review: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

In Record Review on January 19, 2009 at 10:11 pm

This review was originally published on on 2/19/09

You are Jason Isbell, and you are on a brutal tour with your band, the Drive By Truckers, touring their latest record,  “A Blessing and a Curse.” During this tour, the fighting with your wife, who also happens to be the bassist, has grown so intense that it threatens the very existence of the Drive By Truckers.

You leave the group after this tour, separate from your wife whom you later divorce, and the band goes on to record their best album,  “Brighter than Creation’s Dark.” No longer playing huge shows, the shows with your current band, The 400 Unit, play to audiences a fraction of the size of your old band. So you head back home, to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, home of the famous studio, the sound of which has shaped you musically more than the imagined propensity for drink in your family.

You enlist various musicians ready to play your masterpiece. And you’ve got more than enough emotional material to start, and now the question is how to frame all that it is that you have to say.

You could directly confront the issue, forcing each critic to draw parallels between your lyrics and the disparate heartbreak found in your previous marriage, or you could instead bury your pain in the subterfuge of your songs, and maybe find a character that can bear the brunt of your disappointment, maybe in a soldier, who is still fighting a stinging war in Iraq.

Isbell does a little bit of both on this record, and the first time I listened to this record, the first song that really hit home for me was “This is the last song I will ever write,” which is the track that closes the record. So I know, it’s kind of like walking into a movie early and catching the end before it has a chance to really start, but the song did such a good job of announcing itself, the way the lyrics faded out, and into the freewheeling piano-guitar-bass-drum blues tribute that flies in afterwards.  The narrator is a solider who is just about to breathe his last breath in combat. He could be a soldier serving in Iraq under the last days of George W. Bush, or he could be someone who is already dead. But its the breakdown in the song where the records pulls back and reveals its teeth, that blast of sound after we hear the last words from the narrator, the explosion where all the pistons in this 400 Unit really nail the emotional center of the song, and capture all of its melodic glory that is the soldier’s last gasp struggle to hold on, to show the weight in the thrashes of a soldier’s last breath.

It’s a truly intimate moment because it feels like you trapped in a room with the band, which are hell-bent on staying true right through to the bitter end of the song.

As soon as I heard this song I knew that Isbell had really raised the bar on his music,  and after “The Last Song I’ll Ever Write” he has now grown in my mind from accomplished singer-songwriter to accomplished bandleader, and where his last record felt a little too stitched together, and sounded like separate set pieces, this one sounds like the complete movie.

Through these songs, Isbell and his 400 unit are able to grab the listener by the lapels of their denim jacket and even though the songs might be soaked in whiskey, they are just as heartbreakingly real as they are direct, offering up music that hits right to the heart, it’s a drunken buddy being honest with you for the first time in years.

Isbell’s not trying to reinvent rock and roll here, he’s just trying to tell a story and make us feel what the characters been through, and no matter who the narrator is, he comes across as pure Isbell through and through.

“Soldiers Get Strange” is another favorite, and this one is again told from the perspective of a soldier, but this time the situation seems like it could have come straight from Isbell’s sour mash life,  “She tells you she wears your ring,” He sings, “After a couple of drinks she’s a little bit scared of you.”

It could be a soldier trying to re-adjust to life, “to towing the civilian line, but their all scared of you.” But it’s easy to see the parallels in the armed forces and being on tour, and if touring to a musician is a battle every night, then what do they do when they come home and have to come back down from the lights and the cheers and the crowds? They have to get used to the silence.

“Its not the time that made it go south, Its not the liquor that burns in your mouth, its not that her figure has changed, Its just that soldiers get strange.”

There are moments all over this record, moments where the righteous anger of Isbell’s voice matches the ferocity of his band, on tracks like “Good”, where he, sounding more like himself than on any other track, laments that he will always be a bad person, that his fate is sealed.

“I can’t make myself do right, on a Friday night,” he sings “With all of these shadows they get bigger, and bigger in the light” and in so doing makes an almost an direct reference to his own past, how in the swarm of all of this celebrations and revelry, he still feels paralyzed by the loss, like “petrified old wood.”

There’s a ray of hope through all of this desert dust, heat, whiskey and mortality, in the form of “However Long” that holds onto the light with a rousing chorus, while the stop on a dime percussion provided by way of double duty producer/ drummer Matt Pence (Pence, who produced the record, also plays in seminal Denton, Texas act Centromatic) drives the needle into the shot in the arm of the chorus, with lines that propel the track into the sweet kick that it delivers. “However long the night the dawn will break again.”  And after the pervasive sense of loss on the record, it’s nice to know that some of this homespun wisdom isn’t fatal.

Recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and at the same studio where many of the classic soul records were made, many by Patterson Hood’s father, many by various members of Isbell’s family.  Music to Isbell runs as deep as the blood in his veins, as deep as religion, and that deep conviction can be felt all the way through “Coda”, a fine two minute instrumental track with the whole band playing the melody they will go on to repeat on “Last song I will ever write.”

“The Blues” is a straight up RnB number, and Isbell’s ragged whiskey growl is perfectly matched by the swing the band deploys here.  The melody might be disarmingly cute, but the lyrics cut right to the bone. The song is about what the blues does to us who choose to live it, and it’s Isbell pulling out his emotional scars out with a bittersweet twang, and its surprisingly light in it’s composition, with an up tempo swing that’s really delightful.

The traditional R&B sound carries on in “No Choice in the Matter”, replete with horns, whiskey soaked piano, and that great Isbell moan, lean close enough and you’d swear it was recorded in 1962.

At this point in Isbell’s career, he has just produced a record that cements his status as a bandleader in full command of his musical powers. He has shown, at thirty years old, that he is a mature artist capable of employing a variety of styles in order to get the characters in his songs to really ring out.  It’s a record you’ll play and play until the record’s arc comes clear – from the homespun childhood reverie of “Seven Mile Island” to the last breath of a veteran in “The Last Song I Will Write” – Isbell and his 400 unit have released a solid collection that’s full of heart, guts, heartbreak and regret, a work that cements his reputation as a bandleader while creating a truly riveting break-up-and-recovery record.