A Home in Music

By Hillary H. McGoodwin

Hillary with ClientA few months ago, I was in my humble office at the local homeless shelter; listening to Jimmy Smith with Metric up next (gotta keep social work zesty, ya know). I was filling out paperwork for a veteran with whom I was helping to find housing. As I play the air-organ, an elderly man appears in the doorway. The Christmas lights that adorn my office doorframe made him smile, and then the hearing of Jimmy Smith from my ancient PC speakers made his face light up. I invited him into my office. After collecting basic information from him, like his name, branch of military service, what brought him to the shelter, etc., I ask him if he likes music. The 56 year old Navy veteran lit up again and said: “Music is my savior”. I replied “Me too”.

We discussed his stroke, the subsequent abuse by his spouse, and how he had contemplated “checking out early” many times before but he knew that he just needed to leave and seek shelter elsewhere. This man arrived in my doorway with nothing tangible and only the clothes on his back but he was a walking well of musical knowledge. Part of my therapy with him was to explore music to get a better understanding of his life. It was not long before I learned his life is one long playlist.

Every event, positive and negative, is tied to a song or record. Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew eased his mind when his father killed his mother in front of him. Django Reinhardt was his grandfather’s hero and he remembers decorating the table for Thanksgiving with gypsy jazz filling the air, a week before he deployed for war, and that was the last time he saw his grandfather again. He remembers easing his war-torn soul with the funky bass-lines of Larry Graham. He remembers (and now loathes) Al Green for being the singer of his wedding song. He remembers Up on Cripple Creek playing on the taxi ride from his abusive home to the shelter. “Music is my savior” he said. “Music haunts me and helps me. Music helps me remember the good so the bad is endurable.” Music is embedded in his being. Music is his soul.

I have had the pleasure of watching this man rise up from unsurmountable odds to now being well on his way to living independently with a refueled sense of self. I have introduced him to new music so that he can make associations with them as he embarks on this new beginning. (He has taken to A Fine Frenzy). He told me the other day that Jimmy Smith’s My Funny Valentine will forever be associated with the day he came alive again. ♦

Hillary McGoodwin is a native Lexingtonian audiophile who coordinates a transitional housing program for homeless veterans at Hope Center.

Wax Fang – Victory Laps

a0620450951_10Experimental Rock

Don’t Panic Records – May 5, 2017

Few better Kentucky releases have come out than Mirror, Mirror since its release in 2012 – Louisville’s Wax Fang followed that up in 2014 with their remarkable space-rock-opera, The Astronaut, and now with Victory Laps. The music here is, in many cases, denser and more concise than songs on either of those releases, fleshed out with a big group of additional personnel and collaborators. As always, though, Wax Fang maintains a massive, in-your-face, unapologetic feeling to their music, thanks in large part to Scott Carney’s recognizable voice and confident delivery.

Opener “Pusher” gets right to it: a quick, shuffling synth-and-drum-driven intro, and we’re into the verse – Carney slurs long strings of lyrics together before crashing into a chorus, where he asks “if it’s the end of everything, then what am I a fighting for?” Next is “The Things I Do For Fun,” an outrageously fun track with a hook sure to get stuck in your head. Carney’s voice is distorted, his delivery is fast and punchy as he assaults you with “come on everybody let’s get ready to go because we’re going downtown to a rock and roll show” – the setup to the third chorus is huge, and the wildest moment of the entire album. “Decathect” provides some aural relief from the intensity of the prior song – a simple piano-driven introduction provides foundation for sweet, falsetto vocals throughout the song.

The second half of the album opens with “…” – a very nice, acoustic guitar lead-in for the next track. “Serenity Now” begins with plodding bass and synth, positioning itself as an anxiety-ridden anthem highlighted by the line “have I lost my mind, or is this just a sign of the times?” that caps off the end of each chorus. The verses on “Mystery Girl” – with their low synth pulses and dance music samples – could nearly pass for a Jamaican Queens track. The chorus here is filled out with shuffling drums, warped guitar, and Carney’s sweet admiration of the song’s subject, “she’s got a stigma, she’s an enigma, she’s a mystery even to her.” The brief “Lonely Nights” is another highlight of the album – it’s a well-produced track where Carney feels most intimate as he stutters through the third verse, “d-d-d-do you, do you still think about me … did you delete me from your m-memory?” and with beautiful harmonies on each repetition of “lonely nights.” “Exit Strategy” provides a dark, spaced-out finale to the album, replete with lengthy wordless sections and a dense orchestration.

Victory Laps is a step in a busier direction for Wax Fang, but this thicker texture is carried out well, providing opportunities for the band to increase the range of their live shows, given their full catalogue. Though not described as a concept album, themes of anxiety – both internal and external – are explored frequently; there’s often also the presence of a certain someone in the subject of many of the songs. No matter your experience with Wax Fang, it’s great to have some new music from them – Victory Laps is a well-crafted, wild ride of an album.

Tracks I Liked: Pusher!, The Things I Do For Fun!!!, Decathect!, Serenity Now!, Mystery Girl!, Lonely Nights!!

Ben Southworth – May 7, 2017 – Kenwick Place

Joan Shelley – Joan Shelley

a2716870051_10Acoustic Americana

No Quarter – May 5, 2017

Louisville’s Joan Shelley is known for her quiet, soothing music and beautiful, clear voice – Joan Shelley is elegantly all of these things, and a quietening listening experience throughout. The album begins with the quiet track, “We’d Be Home,” featuring a pair of guitars churning softly beneath Joan’s voice as she repeats “if you were made for me, we’d be home.” On “Where I’ll Find You,” the space is filled with shuffling, brushed percussion and a light organ – the song’s highlight is Joan’s vocal duet in the chorus. My favorite of the album is “Even Though,” a brief, simply-orchestrated song of plodding, finger-picked guitar and voice that manages a beautiful, melancholic fullness in its sound. Piano is added to the texture on “Pull Me Up One More Time,” with electric guitars crying softly in the background – Joan addresses her sister, “have I lingered too long, sister?” before reaching out for a hand, “pull me up one more time, for I have fallen.” The album ends with a droning, dissonant acoustic guitar on “Isn’t that Enough,” where piano doubles Joan’s voice several octaves below during the verses; her final lyrics of the album ask, “isn’t that enough, that you were meant to be free?”

The talent of the album’s remarkable collaborating musicians James Elkington, Nathan Salsburg, and Jeff and Spencer Tweedy is in their subtlety and restraint, adding only what is essential to the texture of these songs. Joan Shelley is an utterly appropriate title for its namesake’s fourth LP – despite the album’s superstar collaborators, Joan’s signature voice and songwriting are the driving, dominant force behind this music. I’d recommend this album with headphones, so you can catch every beautiful, nuanced note beneath the surface.

Tracks I Liked: We’d Be Home!!, Where I’ll Find You!, Even Though!!!, Pull Me Up One More Time!!, Wild Indifference!, Isn’t That Enough!

Ben Southworth – May 1, 2017 – Kenwick Place

Wooden Wand – Clipper Ship

a0468762143_10Psychedelic Folk

Three Lobed Recordings – May 5, 2017

I almost wasn’t going to write about this album – in trying to stick to a blog about Kentucky music, I wondered if it were right to write about Wooden Wand after James Toth had moved to Virginia. However, upon receiving my preorder of the CD in the mail and hearing how good it is, I felt it appropriate. Aside from  being a stunningly rich and beautiful album, its roots still stretch throughout Kentucky – a combined four tracks were recorded in Shelbyville and Lexington, and many feature the talents of a handful of Kentucky musicians. Despite being made from these many collaborations and stitched together from a few recording sessions, Clipper Ship is cohesive, intimate, and retains a feeling of Toth’s singular vision.

“School’s Out” is the record’s second single and opens the album with shimmery acoustic guitar and Toth’s reverberating vocals. The first two verses are divided by interjections from a glowing pedal steel and satisfyingly rich bass; on the second verse, Toth asks a deceptively enticing volcano to spare his only daughter, that “she was not made to be a martyr.” These conjured images of human sacrifice are hinted to again on “Sacrificial,” a song orchestrated simply by finger-picked acoustic guitar and voice – the richness of the previous song’s thick instrumentation is replaced by the intimacy and fidelity in this one’s recording. “Mexican Coke” features droning strings from James Elkington and Jim Becker, as well as the rustling percussion of Glenn Kotche. The track expresses appreciation for antiquity, and contains the album’s most immediately understood lyrics on the fleeting nature of time and one’s best intentions going awry.

“Mallow T’ward the River” and “One Can Only Love” stand tall as lengthy centerpieces to the album. The former is a ballad about an Uncle Perry – a man who “cheated many women and murdered men for gold.” When our narrator asks the uncle if he has any fears about what might come of his misdeeds, the track’s texture blossoms as Perry responds confidently “nephew, you are such a foolish one / I’ll be here tomorrow, same as river, same as sun.” Eventually, age, his enemies, and nature itself catch up to Perry – “they beat uncle like a beast / the river changed direction and the sun set in the east” – Toth personifies our world beautifully, imbuing it with supernatural power. “One Can Only Love” is the most sonically striking track of the album, and its three droning sections push forward past the eight-minute mark. Throughout the breathtaking first section, the musicians assembled feel entirely unified as if they were a single instrument; the latter two sections – both instrumental – are equally stunning as the first.

The album’s title track features the talents of Lexington’s Joshua Wright and Seth Murphy (of Bear Medicine), as the trio conjures imagery of a clipper ship moving fast across the water, “cracking through the dawn like a horsewhip.” Finally, an instrumental reprise of “Mood Indica” (the second of the three sections of “One Can Only Love”) brings the album to a close. Though the album originates from four recording locations and thirteen musicians, its seven songs fit together as one long breath, and Toth’s voice feels clear and intimate throughout. Clipper Ship is a fabulous album of beautiful, haunting stories with vivid imagery.

Tracks I Liked: School’s Out!, Mexican Coke!!, Mallow T’ward the River!!!, One Can Only Love!!, Clipper Ship!

Ben Southworth – April 23, 2017 – Kenwick Place

White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band

a1041694622_10Rock and Roll

Polyvinyl Records – April 7, 2017

From the moment you read the title of White Reaper’s new record, you get an unmistakable sense of the band’s bravado. The music is armed with the know-how of one of Louisville’s best-known producers, Kevin Ratterman, helping the songs evolve from the less-polished, garage-rock style of previous albums to a clearer, weightier, bigger-sounding version of things. The album opener, for which the album is named, opens with the sounds of cheering crowds, featuring an anthemic chorus ready for the radio. “Judy French” is the album’s single, complete with chugging guitars, fast-rolling drums, and quick instrumental breaks that lead back into tight verses. At first listen, “The Stack” could almost pass as a My Morning Jacket track (particularly the resemblance between Esposito’s voice and Jim James’), but a fiery, angular guitar lick at the end of each chorus just gives things a different energy. The album’s closer, “Another Day,” is washed out, distorted, and loud – in just under two minutes, the band wraps things up, never losing the energy they started things with. The World’s Best American Band is a title that toes the line between tongue-and-cheek and sincere, leaning more towards the latter – White Reaper are pure, American rock and roll.

Tracks I Liked: The World’s Best American Band!!!, Judy French!, Eagle Beach!, Little Silver Cross!, The Stack!!, Another Day!

Ben Southworth – April 17, 2017 –  Kenwick Place