Sunday, December 4, 2016

Interview with Nikki Lane

For our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we caught up with Outlaw country firebrand Nikki Lane during a rare "off the road" moment. Lane gave us the lowdown on her upcoming album Highway Queen (out next February on New West), how it stacks up against her earlier work, how vintage country fashion plays a role in her art, and what it was like to drive a monster truck for her latest music video.

NoiseTrade: Your new album Highway Queen (out 2/17 on New West) evokes an interesting geographical blending in its lyrics and musical styles. To what do you attribute its sprawling roots?

Nikki Lane: I guess it's a byproduct of all the travel. We canvassed so much ground on this record and I believe it really took its toll on me. I can see some of the skepticism in my lyrics that comes from being worn down by the road and from the vulnerability that comes with this job. I can also see the growth that takes place when you go out and work the way we did. My musical influences have quadrupled having such a cool group of musicians in the band. My bass player Eric in particular is responsible for me having so many modern bands on my playlists these days. I've loved being able to draw from this era as much as I do from the past.

NT: Recording sessions for Highway Queen took place in Denton, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee. Did both places end up playing different roles or providing different inspirations for the finished product?

Lane: Most definitely. Texas in itself changes the way I feel. My stress level drops so much when I am able to create outside of my hometown. The demands of being home were able to be put aside so that I could focus on making the best possible record. Playing with the young Texas guys helped me to develop a voice in the studio, which is something I hadn't had the nerve to do until recently. However, I was craving some of that Nashville sound and wanted to make sure we got Colin Dupuis involved in the record again. He engineered All or Nothin' and mixed this record. He also pulled the great players together who had worked on the last record to try a few last tracks, one of which is "Jackpot." That one was deemed the single or the "hopeful hit" the second it was recorded.

NT: The music video you recorded for the title track seems like it was a blast to shoot. Where’d the monster truck idea come from and how much fun did you have that day?

Lane: My father used to set his own monster truck up to roll over cars on a couple of holidays when I was a kid. He mainly used it for mud bogging. Then, one Fourth of July, he had our cousins bring over some cars from the junkyard and he ran them over for people in the town. Everyone just hooted and hollered. It's been on the bucket list ever since. What's crazy is that on the second time over the cars, we had seven of the people who work on my team in the cab with me. Space was so tight that one of the girls laid across four guys in the backseat. There was a second there where I got really nervous that I had the lives of my whole team in my hands. I made sure to hold the wheel real straight!

NT: What songs on Highway Queen came the easiest to write and record? Which ones seemed the most difficult to capture?

Lane: "Companion" takes the cake for being the easiest piece of the puzzle. I wrote it in a quick moment sitting at the kitchen table one night and we recorded it at two in the morning when everyone should have been on their way home. I sat at the piano in the back of the room with Daniel Creamer and just wanted to show him the idea. Moments later Matt Pence was moving the vocal mic across the room and we cut it right there. The only reason we did a second take was to give the boys time to learn the harmony. "Highway Queen" had a lot of pressure riding on it. After all, it was the title of the record long before it was written... a concept, if you will. We tracked it maybe six times in various settings at four different studios. It wasn't that the other versions weren't good, it just took hearing it with a bunch of different treatments before I could make a decision.

NT: Along with your new single, you’re offering your debut album here on NoiseTrade. What do you hear when you listen back to your earlier work?

Lane: I'm really impressed with it... I mean, I've been lucky to work with such great producers since day one. I can hear the growth in the songwriting as time progresses and I also see just how much of my cards have been shown. The first record was made as a young married woman trying to carve a career path. By the second record, I am heartbroken and divorced. It's nice to have a new one which still reflects the truth but shows signs of evening out. Maybe a little bit of luck in love, as well.

NT: Finally, from your impeccable stage gear to your vintage shop High Class Hillbilly, your country credentials go far beyond just the music. What part does fashion play in your overall creative aesthetic and what can you tell us about your store?

Lane: I believe that being a front man isn't just about the songs I write, it's about the entire identity. It has to reflect the character. It has to be genuine. It has to be original. That part has always been obvious to me, long before I started playing music. What can I say, I am a sucker for Elvis, ZZ Top, and Loretta Lynn. They're not legends because they were dressed in clothes from the mall. So I began collecting and working on my identity a long time ago. Trying to decide how to reflect what's going on inside on the outside. High Class Hillbilly is what happens when collecting gets out of hand. I opened the store because there were too many great treasures to leave behind. Besides, most of the pieces I find, I can almost picture exactly who they're going to end up with. Owning the store also helps me connect with fans and friends in a different way than music and I enjoy that.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Christmasongs: A Totally Rad '80s Christmas

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

Yes, Virginia, that is Mr. T getting some sweet Nancy Reagan sugar for Christmas.

Can we all agree that there seemed to be something extra special about the Christmases of the 1980s? Whether it was due to my age (born in 1980), the special marketing relationship between TV and toys, the rise of video game systems, the plethora of McDonald’s holiday commercials, or the awesome toys that were created under the Cold War climate (G.I. Joe, Rambo, Hulk Hogan vs. Nikolai Volkoff action figures), it seemed to always be a ‘roided out version of Christmas, at least for us kids. Luckily there was also some great music to go along with all of the Cabbage Patch Kid stampedes and claymation California Raisins. A bunch of 80’s Christmas songs have appeared in my previous “Christmasongs” posts and they are more to come after this, but here's a nice chunk of goods ones to mention. Let’s jump in the DeLorean and take a trip shall we…

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” – Band Aid: You can’t talk about Christmas music from the '80s without starting here. In 1984, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure gathered together a huge collection of some the biggest musical acts of the time to record a single that would raise money for the Ethiopian Famine. Leading the way for other charitable efforts like Live Aid and the “We Are The World” single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” serves as an important milestone in the ongoing relationship between music and relief efforts. Watching the video for this one is like a “Where’s Waldo” of the musical landscape of the 8'0s.

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" - Band Aid

“One Year On” – Band Aid: Sure, everyone's heard "Do They Know It's Christmas?" a million times since 1984. However, when they repressed the single the next year, they added a pretty interesting B-side titled "One Year On." It opens with a spoken message from Bob Geldof and then features Midge Ure reading out on everything that the Band Aid money went to over the last year since the single was first released, all played over the musical bed from "Do They Know It's Christmas?" It's a pretty interesting track and serves as a really nice follow-up to all the attention that was garnered by the single and Live Aid. Without a doubt it's a "do not miss" piece of 80s pop culture that shows just how impactful the whole Band Aid movement was (and why it continues to still be so impactful three decades later).     

"One Year On" - Band Aid

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – U2: It’s hard to believe that only one of the A Very Special Christmas compilations were released in the 80’s, but it was at least a really good one. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Run DMC, Madonna and Bon Jovi all appeared on it and U2 performed one of the best loved covers of Darlene Love’s classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It was recorded during a soundcheck on one of the stops on The Joshua Tree tour, so it has that iconic mid-8'0s U2 sound. This one shows up every year on radio playlists and retail store overhead speaker, but for very good reason.

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" - U2

“Thanks For Christmas” – XTC: Under the moniker “The Three Wise Men,” XTC released “Thanks For Christmas” as a non-album holiday single in 1983. XTC has always been one of the better bands to emerge from the New Wave/Alternative genre and it speaks a lot about them that they can even pump out an original Christmas tune as well. This one feels super upbeat and festive and I really love the overall musical tone of the song. As a side note, the appearance of this song (along with “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses) in the first season Christmas episode of Gilmore Girls helped Amanda get me hooked on the show. I’m totally down with any show the exhibits such incredible musical taste. I’ve said too much…

"Thanks For Christmas" - The Three Wise Men (XTC)

“All I Want For Christmas” – Timbuk 3: Timbuk 3 is a unique band that is mostly categorized as a one-hit wonder for their irony laced “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” single. However, my favorite song of theirs is “All I Want For Christmas” from 1987. Written as somewhat of a protest song against the vast array of “war toys” that were available to kids, the chorus of “All I want for Christmas is world peace” sums up the song pretty well. The verses name drop a lot of toys like Transformers, G.I. Joes, Rambo, and Thundercats and there’s also a reference to Stars Wars 1, 2, and 3 and VCRs. Add in a drum machine and a “We Three Kings” harmonica solo and you’ve got one decidedly '80s socio-political Cold War Christmas song.

"All I Want For Christmas" - Timbuk 3

“Give Love on Christmas Day” – New Edition: Before there was Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown's solo career, there was New Edition - one of the most ridiculously talented teenage R&B vocal groups since the Jackson 5. Their 1985 Christmas All Over The World album is one of my favorite go-to holiday albums every year and I was so happy to finally upgrade it from cassette to CD a few years back. While the song "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Girl)" is my favorite song from the album, their cover of the Jackson 5's "Give Love on Christmas Day" gets the highlight here for it's old-school throwback move of throwing the each band member's name into the lyrics: "Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike, and Ralph too/Give all the love that we feel to you." Classic cheesy goodness, every single time.     

"Give Love On Christmas Day" - New Edition

“Christmas Wrapping” – The Waitresses: I know, I know… people either love the '80s New Wavey awesomeness of this song or they hate that it’s played so much. I am absolutely in the former camp because this song is really, really good and it’s possibly the only Christmas song to reference one time grocery giant A&P. The song is super festive and relays a bunch of missed connections that tie together nicely in the end. I love the sound of this song and the late Patty Donahue had one of the coolest and most distinctive voices in the New Wave genre. Special thanks to Steve Craig, radio DJ hero of my teens, for cementing this song in my holiday heart by spinning it a few times every year during his "House Of Retro Pleasure" Christmas shows. I can't thank that guy enough for all the great music over the years!

"Christmas Wrapping" - The Waitresses

“Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You’re A Lovely Guy)” – Max Headroom: '80s icon and “New Coke” spokesman Max Headroom’s voice causes an instant flashback for folks like me. His humor, sarcasm, electronic voice and stuttering delivery brought an erratic vibe to everything he was involved in. Hearing him sing this song takes me right back to a childhood Christmas playing Super Mario Brothers in my Karate Kid-esque pajamas that oddly enough had a Ghostbusters logo on them.

"Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You're A Lovely Guy) - Max Headroom

“Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You” – Billy Squier: Man, this pop-rock holiday gem from 1981 is so over the top cheesy that I can’t decide if it’s genius or just ironic. Either way it’s a guaranteed spirit lifter and it’s pretty much impossible not to sing along with a goofy grin on your face. I’ve got such a special spot for this one and I have no idea why. If you really want the full affect of this song though, you’ve got to watch the studio video from MTV’s first Christmas on the air. All 5 original VJs can be seen and the clothing and haircuts are priceless!

"Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You" - Billy Squier

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Mike Watt - “Ring Spiel” Tour ’95 (Album Review)

As a teenager in the ‘90s, my introduction to punk legend Mike Watt came not from his work in the influential ‘80s bands Minutemen and Firehose, but from his first solo album Ball-Hog or Tugboat? that came out in early 1995. Even then, it was the inclusion of Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) and Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters) on the album’s lead single “Against The 70’s” that even enticed me to pick up the album in the first place. The fact that Ball-Hog or Tugboat? turned out to include an alternative all-star list of backing musicians – J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Evan Dando (The Lemonheads), Adam Horowitz (Beastie Boys), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Frank Black (Pixies), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), and more - made the pick-up all the more sweeter. While late to the party, I was so glad to have finally gotten my invitation to appreciate Watt.

When Watt decided to tour behind Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, he brought Vedder and Grohl along as part of his backing band, rounded out by some of Grohl’s Foo Fighters – Pat Smear and William Goldsmith. This pitch-perfect snapshot of the mid-90s alternative scene is presented on “Ring Spiel” Tour ’95, a brand new live album capturing the May 6, 1995 tour stop at The Metro in Chicago, IL. This 16-track sonic thrill ride is raw, vibrant, and beautifully unhinged at all the right moments. Watt’s gruff vocals and melodically adventurous bass lines are front and center, while his notable backing band elevates without ever over-stepping. 

The fact that Vedder and Grohl were not yet the fully-realized frontmen that they would eventually become within their own bands certainly helped the two function as formidable sidemen, allowing their talents to shine and instigate Watt’s performance without any worry of personality indulgence. The result is a thunderous live show that features Grohl’s relentlessly enthusiastic drumming and Vedder’s unmistakable howl. Both men contribute some explosive guitars as well. Though it is Smear who contributes the most memorable six-string performance of the set with his slick slide work on “Big Train.” 

Not content to just have the shows be a run-through of Ball-Hog or Tugboat? in its entirety, Watt’s setlist is a combination of just some of the album’s tracks, broken up by Firehose and Minutemen songs sprinkled in for good measure as well. The set is made even more eclectic with the inclusion of covers of Blue Oyster Cult (The Red and The Black”) and Madonna (“Secret Garden’), the latter of which features Smear on lead vocals. Watt even gave a slot to Vedder for an early version of “Habit,” which would eventually appear on Pearl Jam’s No Code the following year.

“Ring Spiel” Tour ’95 pulls off the unique double success of being a super fun listen on its own merit, while also functioning as a historical sonic snapshot of a music scene in forward motion. On a personal level, I’m so glad that this concert got a proper release because it captures what I loved about the excitement and uncertainty of the mid-90s alternative scene. On a cultural level, I think it’s super important to be reminded of what an impact Watt has had in his career and who he has influenced along the way, as well as having the interesting side note of hearing two certifiable legends playing together at such an interesting moment in their careers. For all these reasons and more, “Ring Spiel” Tour ’95 is certainly worth the pick-up. 

As a fun bonus, here’s Watt, Grohl, Vedder, Smear, and Goldsmith playing “Big Train” and “The Red and The Black” on The Jon Stewart Show:

Friday, November 4, 2016

Monday, October 31, 2016

Elvis Costello @ The Chicago Theatre (Concert Review)

For his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour, Elvis Costello promised to revisit selections from his 1982 album of the same name, as well as “the songs that led in and out of that velvet-trimmed playhouse.” With an almost 40-year deep catalog to pull from, Costello’s Saturday night show at The Chicago Theatre proved to be an eclectic and dazzling trip through some of his deep album cuts, big hits, and new, unreleased gems.

Impeccably backed by his “second” band The Imposters (organist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas, and bassist Davey Faragher), Costello played very few songs as they were originally recorded, preferring instead to have as much fun with his songs as he wanted. With his sly, wink-and-a-nod frontman face on in full force, Costello led his band – as well as two incredibly soulful background singers (Kitten Kuroi and Yahzarah) – through a 2 hour and 45 minute, 30-song, double encore set that was anchored by almost the entirety of Imperial Bedroom. (For those keeping score at home, “Little Savage” and “Boy with a Problem” were the only missing cuts from the album’s original tracklisting).   

It’s no surprise that The Imposters were able to keep up with Costello’s twisting set list and his playful reinterpretations, as Nieve and Thomas were a part of Costello’s original band The Attractions, who recorded not only recorded Imperial Bedroom but have played with Costello since his second album, This Year’s Model. Faragher, who joined Costello’s band in 2001, not only handled Costello’s earlier material with energetic expertise, but also contributed some beautiful background vocals and created the stunning vocal arrangements for Kitten Kuroi and Yahzarah.

After kicking the show off with a soulful romp through “The Town Where Time Stood Still,” Costello greeted the crowd - “Welcome to the Imperial Bedroom! We’ve decorated the place up nice for you!” – and gestured to the giant video screen behind them that shuffled through Costello’s album and singles artwork that had been reworked to incorporate elements of the artwork from Imperial Bedroom. It was an incredibly cool touch that added an additional element of surprise and playfulness throughout the entirety of the show.

Song after song, Costello and his band showed an unbelievable versatility in the genres and moods they invoked. “Lipstick Vogue,” “Pump It Up,” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” were played with a relentless punk fury, while “Shot With His Own Gun,” “Almost Blue,” and “This House Is Empty Now” made the room feel like a late-night hotel bar. “Tears Before Bedtime” and “The Long Honeymoon” were marked by a slow-burn slink and some incendiary guitar solos from Costello lifted “Shabby Doll” and “Pidgen English“ to intense heights. One of the night’s most memorable moments came when Costello brought his background singers to the front of the stage and the three of them sang a solo electric version of “Alison” all around one microphone. Show-stopper “Watching the Detectives” – with Costello awash in a green spotlight and the video screen cycling through a variety of film noir b-movie posters – made for an unforgettable crowd-engaging favorite as well.

After the first full-band encore – an excited “Town Cryer” and a straight-ahead take on “Everyday I Write the Book” – Costello came back out by himself to start the second encore. Decked out in a purple top hat and carrying a snazzy scepter, Costello asked, “Are you waiting for me to announce my candidacy?” He then launched into a trio of new politically minded songs from behind the piano. Written for an upcoming stage musical title A Face in the Crowd, the three new songs – “Blood & Hot Sauce,” “Face in the Crowd,” and “American Mirror” – built upon each other thematically, lyrically, and musically; with Costello playing the first by himself, the second with Nieve added on organ, and the third with his full band and singers. After the batch of unreleased newcomers, Costello closed the night out with two of his most raucous fan favorites, “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” to uproarious approval.

While tours that focus on revisiting previous albums has been a popular move in the last decade for most performers, not many have been able to do it with as much ferocity and vitality as Costello. By playing his old songs with renewed energy and fresh musical approaches, as well as adding in brand new songs that haven’t made their way to an album yet, Costello has managed to bring everything to the forefront, making his catalog feel every bit as dangerous and invigorating as when he first burst onto the scene in the late ‘70s.