Friday, October 23, 2015

Interview with Sandra McCracken + Psalms (Bonus Edition) Track-by-Track

Sandra McCracken is a singer-songwriter-hymnist and unquestionably one of my most favorite artists. Her most recent album Psalms is a soul-stirring collection of songs that has been a constant sonic companion of mine since its release this past April. Currently, McCracken is offering Psalms in its entirety on NoiseTrade. Upping the ante, she has also included an additional nine songs to create an exclusive bonus edition of the album that surrounds that already brilliant release with even more nuance and context. Additionally, any and all tips will be given to the charitable work of A Rocha and will contribute to future songwriter retreats and recordings.

While Psalms: Bonus Edition will only be available on NoiseTrade for a short time, I decided to take the opportunity to interview McCracken about Psalms, the unique location and atmosphere in which it was recorded, and her involvement with the faith-based environmental group A Rocha. I also asked her to take us deeper into the album's creative corners with a revealing track-by-track look at the nine bonus songs.

While you have certainly been no stranger to the modern hymn movement, what sparked the idea to write an album based specifically around Psalms?

I was writing prolifically for a season last year, and when reviewing all the new songs with my friend and collaborator Isaac Wardell, he made the observation that it seemed like I was actually making two records side-by-side. I was spending a lot of time personally writing and singing Psalms, and without realizing it, there were narrative songs, and there were an album’s worth of Psalms forming naturally, right alongside. Even though I’ve worked with writing and re-writing old hymns over the years, after Isaac made that pronouncement out loud that he thought I was making a Psalms record, I then began writing more specifically within those more narrow perimeters. It’s helpful to have fences around creative work. Creativity flows more freely when you can give an idea specific limitations.

Did studying the psalms through a songwriter’s eye uncover anything new about them that you may not have previously noticed?

I’ve been pretty soaked in Bible texts since I was very young, but my experience with the Psalms around the time of this album was less cognitive and more expressive. After a time of great personal loss and displacement, I feel like I was able to really get inside the words more than I have before, even as the words were getting inside of me. I read them in my kitchen. I read them waking up in the middle of the night. I read them week after week in the liturgy at church. When I was reading, I felt convinced of my place in the world, and that people before me have felt what I feel. And sometimes I’d have to go back to reading just a few hours after I had last read just to re-center myself. I’ve said it before, but the Psalms give us permission to feel, and a context to move through our emotions and out into a solid, wide place. There’s a sacred tension between faith and doubt. But I think they both belong together, and they help us find our way along the journey of what it is to know God more honestly.

You recorded Psalms in a friend’s apartment in downtown Brooklyn instead of in a standard studio. Did you find that the environment shaped the record in any unique ways?

The recording environment really affects the sounds and the musical performances you hear on any given album. At the time, I knew it was important for me to get outside of Nashville for a bit, and outside of my home studio where I’ve made the last 5 or 6 projects. Playing some live shows with these musicians from Brooklyn over the past few years has brought me so much joy. Jay and Alex and the other guys have such a subtle, buoyant approach to the arrangements. I really enjoyed the opportunity to be in a relaxed, living-room setting to record these songs. Jay had sent me the address where he had arranged for us to record, and I took a cab there and didn’t realize until I stepped out of the elevator and into the apartment that we would have such an incredible view of the NY skyline and the East River while we were recording. It took me a few minutes before I could even speak. It was high enough above the street to actually be quite serene up there. Singing that first song lyric, “Horizon to horizon, creation to creation sings you home…” had found a new visual. Being in such an inspiring setting gave us an additional lift as we sat down to play the songs that day. I’ve been in a lot of really nice studios over the years, but this recording was something I’ll never forget.

All tips received from the NoiseTrade downloads of Psalms will go to A Rocha. What can you tell us about this faith-based, environmental organization and about what they do?

I have always had a deep love for nature. From the John Denver songs I loved as a child to my Dad’s biology teaching, my spirit feels most alive when I’m standing out on the beach or winding through trails in the woods. There’s something in our humanity that we can meet God (and ourselves) more readily when we unplug from our computers and live some moments of our life outside. When I met Peter and Miranda Harris, the founders of A Rocha a few years ago, I was thoroughly inspired to meet such kindred people, people who boundlessly love God AND creation. I think A Rocha was the first time I had encountered the connection between environmental science work and genuine, living hope, believing that we can take part in the renewal of the Earth (and all that’s in it), even when there’s so much around us that says otherwise.

Many of the extra songs on the bonus edition of Psalms were written during community songwriting events. What have you found to be some of the benefits to writing in a group setting versus crafting a song solely by yourself?

By working as an independent singer and songwriter for the past 15 years, I have discovered that there is no such thing as a solo career in music. We aren’t actually made to live out on our own and we need other people for life to flourish and for us to better understand what it means to belong somewhere, to have a place in the world. Nashville is a city with many amazing people, so community was here already, but these songwriting retreats have been a rallying point that have helped to cultivate relationships and to provoke new questions around the care and wonder of Creation. The retreats have produced some beautiful songs, good fruit, as it were. We are shaped by what we sing, and it is my hope that these A Rocha songs would help shape the affections of many people beyond the boundaries of politics and more deeply into what it means to take better care of our world and our neighbors.

Psalms: Bonus Edition (Track-by-Track)

“The Night Sky”
"The Night Sky" is one of my favorite performances from the songs that have come out of the A Rocha retreats these past few years. I feel like Sarah’s voice captures the sense of wonder and being known that only happens when you are out under the open, starry sky. As somebody who lives in the city, I find those connection moments to be very healing. The vastness of the sky gives me a sense of being small. It's true humility. The bridge of the song captures me every time, the personal, in-the-moment-ness that she captures with the word "here."

“This is My Father’s World”
This old hymn has been one of the most shaping hymns for me in my formation as a songwriter and as a person. The lines “He shines in all that's fair" are to me, a license to explore all of life as good. This frame of seeing all things as good helps me to not make distinctions between sacred and secular, especially as it relates to the natural world. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper talked a lot about this as did John Calvin, Francis Schaeffer and many others who have promoted this idea that everything belongs to God. The truth of it has the potential to change everything about how we relate to each other, to our place and to the creatures that share our place with us.

“From Smallest Seed”
"From Smallest Seed" is the title track of our first EP of songs from the songwriter retreats. This collaboration was Kenny Meeks, Sarah Masen, and Lori Chaffer of Waterdeep. I think this song is like an old folk song or hymn in the way that it sounds like it's always existed. The hook of the song is such a beautiful affirmation: "the sun returns, the earth reborn.” That line pretty much sums up the hope of these songs and of the work of A Rocha. This one is like our theme song.

“Psalm 121” (featuring Rain for Roots)
Psalm 121 is from a group of songs called the Psalms of Ascent that the Israelites would sing on their way up the mountain each year to make annual sacrifices for their sins. Even though we don't practice this anymore, the text is a reminder of how we look to God for help and deliverance in our lives. I love the word "defender" in the chorus of that song. As we learn from pioneers like Brene Brown about how to experience our vulnerability, we have to realize that it is only safe to be vulnerable if you have a strong defender. The kids voices (from Rain For Roots) on this one are a good reminder of trust and vulnerability and our interdependencies in family and community.

“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” (featuring Julie Lee)
We took some liberties on this version of the traditional Beethoven hymn melody. I co-produced it with Greg LaFollette, who really brought a lot of creativity to this A Rocha album. It's one I could listen to on repeat. Julie Lee's voice is pure and angelic, and the background vocals at the end of the song are so haunting. I appreciate the juxtaposition of those complex harmonies with the word "joyful." I feel like that's truth telling through the process of arranging the music.

“Together in the Harvest”
"Together in the Harvest" is a song that I wrote with Kellie Haddock and Tiffany Thompson. As I was looking back over some of the recordings we did this year, I am grateful for songs like this one that remind me of the shared experiences, the planting, the harvesting of gardens and experiences and all the practices that hold us together in a community. Even when there are relational conflicts, still we are together in the harvest, side-by-side, pulling up weeds, gathering the fruit of our work and feasting around one table.

“All Ye Refugees” (featuring Chelsey Scott)
"All Ye Refugees" was written by Chelsey Scott (she sings lead here on this version), Kellie Haddock, and Flo Paris at the first writers retreat. It has taken on new meaning and I used to soundcheck with this often. Gradually, it became a song that felt like it was part of me. It was actually the first song we recorded for the Psalms record, too. The idea of "home" or "place" or "belonging" is an important emphasis in this text. I like how this A Rocha version ends with all the group voices. Seems fitting to join in that chorus all together.

“All Your Works Are Good” (featuring Julie Lee)
I wrote this one with Julie Lee (singing lead here on this version) and my long-time friend Jill Phillips. We did this song last week at my home church for the first time, actually. Many of the lyrics are from Psalm 104 and it has this quiet declaration of how God tells the ocean where to stop, the winds to be still, and we can find our place here within the rhythms of life and all the changing seasons.

“We Will All” (featuring Sarah Masen)
This one was written by a bigger group of songwriters: Sarah Masen, Jordan Brooke Hamlin, Latifah Phillips (of PageCXVI), Greg LaFollette, and Jill Phillips. At the end of this particular writing day, we all sat in my living room playing our new songs, along with some old ones too. I remember asking for an encore of this one. It is such a soul-lift when you learn to lament with honesty, because then you can enter into joy that is as wide as the sorrow. This song, to me, captures both at once.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Interview with Blake Babies

We're so excited for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One as we get to bring you our conversation with the legendary Blake Babies. Iconic mainstays of the 1980s college rock scene, Blake Babies delivered a unique mixture of syrupy sweet vocals and caustic lyrics, all laid out over a bed of jangly guitar work and nuanced drumming. We sat down with the band to discuss their experience coming up in the Massachusetts music scene of the 1980s, their lasting impact on present day bands, and what we can expect from their catalog reissues planned for next year.

NoiseTrade: What do you hear when you listen back to this 1989 WERS radio broadcast?

Juliana Hatfield: I have not listened to it! It kind of freaks me out to hear myself back then.

John Strohm: It’s still hard to hear this music in an objective way. It triggers so many memories. I wish I could experience it without all the baggage, but it’s impossible. I’m judging my own performances as if I made them this morning. I’m frustrated with my guitar tone, knowing that it’s a borrowed guitar, and I didn’t get a nice one until later that year. But I get the charm. We are kids making it up as we go along, and that comes across.

Freda Love Smith: It's strange and disorienting to listen to something that I barely remember. It's a serious mind-fuck time machine! I was kind of terrified to listen, somehow assuming it would sound clunky and amateurish and that I'd feel embarrassed. But no... it sounds earnest, young, hardworking, and musical. We loved what we were doing and we were trying with all our hearts!

NT: With this specific recording capturing the band right before you started recording your Earwig album, what are some things that characterize or identify this period of the band for you each individually?

Strohm: We had a very frustrating period going into Earwig when we transitioned from a two-guitar band (me and Juliana) with a bassist to a one-guitar band with Juliana moving to bass. That’s the lineup here on the WERS broadcast – the three of us. Evan Dando played bass for six months or so, and that was a great band, but we just couldn’t replace Evan. He spoiled us. So eventually Juliana or I had to take up bass, and Juliana was generous in learning the instrument and she played really well. She sort of adopted Evan’s guitarist-on-bass style, which really worked. At the point of this recording, we’re still figuring out how to be a three-piece band. You can tell we’re all playing a lot to fill up the sound. Probably a year after this we added a second guitarist (Michael Leahy) and that took it to another level. But we’re still just figuring it out here. The technically good Earwig recordings are a little deceptive, as we still couldn’t play all that well.

Smith: I really hear the care that we took with the arrangements of the songs. Much of this stemmed from our work with producer Gary Smith and also our settling into being a 3-piece band. We were making the few ingredients that we had to work with really count.

Hatfield: I just remember being really excited about playing and recording music, like it was all sort of bursting out of me, and us. Also I was figuring out a lot of stuff, learning by doing. Like, how to play, how to record, how to mix. I was frustrated too, wanting things to happen more quickly than they were. Gary Smith, our friend and producer and one of the guys who started Fort Apache studios, was helping us a lot. He sort of took us under his wing. I was kind of high-strung back then so I imagine I was hard to deal with. I think John and Freda were probably very tolerant and forgiving of the foul moods I would get myself into.

NT: Since you all started in Boston, MA, how would you describe the college rock scene there in the 1980s?

Smith: I'd describe it as an embarrassment of riches. It was just astounding. Buffalo Tom, Galaxie 500, Big Dipper, The Lemonheads, Throwing Muses, Dinosaur, Jr., The Pixies, Volcano Suns. I absolutely loved every single one of these bands. I never felt like we were in their league!

Strohm: Freda and I moved to Boston specifically because we thought it would be a good place to start a band, but we really lucked out. I was a hardcore kid and I knew about the Boston hardcore scene. However, by the time I moved there in the mid-80s, the hardcore scene was in transition and I really didn’t want much to do with it. We were taking our cues from stuff like REM, the Replacements, Husker Du, X… not really hardcore, but stuff that evolved out of punk. But we wanted to pursue a more melodic sound and we found many peers around the Boston scene, bands coming up such as The Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, Big Dipper, Throwing Muses, Galaxie 500, The Pixies, and a few dozen bands that aren’t as well remembered. Around 1988 or 89, none of those bands was big enough to sell 300 tickets, so we all played the same rooms, the same bills, went to the same parties and shows. It really felt like a scene, and there was a real excitement because everybody shared this feeling that these bands were really fucking good. We saw bands really starting to break out from places nearby, like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth…we felt like that could be us. It all got pretty surreal when bands from our scene started getting popular overseas and selling out in New York. But then, once we started to get a bit popular, it all felt scattered. Freda and I left Boston and I didn’t think about local scenes too much. I really think it was a pretty powerful moment, though. That moment right before all those bands really got noticed.

Hatfield: There were a lot of interesting indie rock bands playing around town and none of them really sounded alike. It was fun and there was no pressure to conform to any kind of local sound. It was so exciting to see Dinosaur (before they added the "Jr.") play at full Dinosaur volume at a small club to about ten people. And it was exciting to open for the Pixies at The Rat (did that really happen or am I imagining it?), another tiny club. I think we (the Blake Babies) felt dorky compared to a lot of the cool bands around town. I did, anyway. I was always very intimidated in the presence of J. Mascis, even though we were technically peers.

NT: As a band that featured two women in a generally testosterone-fueled music scene, did you all face any unique/unnecessary situations during your trailblazing years?

Strohm: I guess I should let the women in the band answer that, but since I was in a band with my girlfriend at the time (Freda), it bugged me a lot that so many of our fans were guys nursing a crush on one or the other of the women in the band. We encountered some blatant sexism here and there from the older music business people, but for the most part those trails had been blazed. A woman playing in a rock band wasn’t all that radical by the late 80s.

Hatfield: I disagree that the music scene then was generally testosterone-fueled. I think the boys in the indie rock scene in the late '80's were not macho at all. In the mainstream, yes, probably we would have experienced a lot more sexism. But we were underground where people were a lot more accepting of girls playing in bands. Later, when we started to tour out in the world, Freda and I started to feel more of that sexism, I think. It was ugly and undeniable but, thankfully, we were shielded from some of it by the good people/guys around us like Gary Smith, Strohm, fellow bands, and the crew guys. And we were based in the northeast, which was more liberal and tolerant than other areas. Some of the worst things I can remember during that era happened in the south. When we all shaved our heads I got so much shit from men in the south. Guys shouting "Dykes!" at me and Freda from the audience in Clemson, South Carolina, and various obnoxious comments from strangers like, "What are you, a boy or a girl?" from an old man in a restaurant somewhere in the deep south.

Smith: I'm still garnering perspective on this. The fact that there were so many women in bands in our immediate scene kind of normalized it for me, but on the road I faced some infuriating moments. I'm really stuck on this time that a sound man actually took my kick drum out of my hands as I was loading out. It was kinda like "Hey little lady, let me help you with that." As if I didn't lug that fucking thing every night of the week! And as Juliana mentioned in her answer, there was the bile and hatred we faced in the deep south. In Clemson, somebody hurled a can of beer at me, right at my face! I think the hurler was upset that I'd shaved my head, and possibly also that I was beating the shit out of a set of drums. I'm guessing I wasn't performing femininity in a way in which he was comfortable! Also, I think I could write an entire book about the way I was treated in drum shops. Drum shops are the worst for mansplaining douchebags. At this one drum shop in Lawrence, Kansas, the guy who worked there was respectful and kind and cool and I took a photo of him! I still have that photo as proof that the unicorn exists.

NT: Many present day bands list Blake Babies as an influence and have even name dropped the band in interviews . For example, Bully comes to mind recently. How does that feel for you all and to what do you attribute your lasting sonic legacy?

Strohm: I’ve met the people in Bully before - they are a local band here in Nashville - and they’ve given me no indication that they know our band! But I do hear an influence, whether it’s direct or they are mining similar influences as us. I’ve seen the references in the press. When young bands or music writers acknowledge us as influential, that feels amazing. That’s the best thing, really. We felt at the time that a big reason we were toughing it out – and it was very hard to do this band for a lot of reasons – was to build some sort of musical legacy that could become more important over time. We didn’t necessarily expect it to happen, but I think we really hoped it would. Now that we’ve built our lives in other directions it matters less than I would have expected, but it’s still very satisfying. I can only really speak for myself, but I’m such a geek music fan that it just blows my mind to think that something we did as kids decades ago actually has a life and continuing influence today. The very best thing that could happen is to inspire young people to want to make music, or to influence the music they make. That sort of thing really validates the whole experience, and everything we put into it.

Smith: I'm proud of the initiative we took in the early days of our career. How when nobody would sign us, we put out our own record. Also, how we worked hard and worked together because we cared so much about what we were doing.

Hatfield: I am just glad no one got killed, that we didn't kill each other, or kill ourselves.

NT: You guys have recorded some really stellar covers over the years (Ramones, Fleetwood Mac, Dinosaur Jr., Stooges, The Grass Roots). Are these more to just give a nod to your influences or did those specific songs resonate with you all in a special way?

Hatfield: Sometimes you do covers to show how cool you are, to show how much you know, how smart you are, how ahead of the pack. It's like being able to claim you discovered something before anyone else did. It's like the pride I felt in being one of the first bands to talk up the Frogs' seminal album It's Only Right and Natural before everyone else did, before everyone else got on that bandwagon. Sometimes covers are just a fun thing to do or they get you away from your own musical habits and shake things up. You want to show you have done your studying, that you have learned the history. Of course, the cover song has to have some kind of resonance to you - the person playing it - or it won't be fun. Or you want to twist it around. Like, singing "Loose" from a female perspective, it makes you look at the song in another light. Some of the covers we recorded were things I had never heard before they were brought to me. I wasn't a big MC5 fan and had heard hardly anything of theirs before Strohm suggested "Shakin' Street". Same with the Fleetwood Mac son. I wasn't very familiar with the Tusk album. That was Strohm's idea, again, I think... or maybe Freda's. I think "Temptation Eyes" was Gary Smith's idea. I hadn't heard it before.

Strohm: We were such music fans in general, we’d fall in love with songs and want to play them. I had a special love for hearing Juliana, with her very feminine voice, singing macho songs like "Loose" or very male-centric songs like "Severed Lips". I dug the irony. But for the most part, it was all about playing songs we loved and trying to bring a fresh perspective. "Temptation Eyes" was our producer Gary Smith's idea and he was very insistent.

NT: Also, individually, which cover was your favorite to record (and why)?

Strohm: We used to do a lot of Neil Young songs, those were my favorite to play live…especially "Barstool Blues". My favorite recorded cover is "Severed Lips". I just like the way Juliana sang it.

Hatfield: I liked doing "Raisans", the Dinosaur song. But that wasn't a Blake Babies recording. I was so enamored of You're Living All Over Me, it is one of my top ten albums of all time. Learning the song and playing it was like going to school and going to church and doing a really important job, for me. It was a form of worship. I still have fantasies of someday recording the whole You're Living All Over Me album, really faithfully and seriously.

NT: Freda, what can we look forward to from your new book Red Velvet Underground? Juliana and John, what's your favorite part?

Smith: The book includes some of my fondest Blake Babies memories about our early tours, about the apartment we shared in Boston, and about experiences and meals we shared during that pivotal time. It also includes a few recipes inspired by that era, including a version of the black bean soup that fed me during some of my more broke musician stretches!

Strohm: I’ll let you know after I finish reading it!

Hatfield: My favorite part is the recipe for garlic placenta, where Freda cooks up and eats her placenta... SO PUNK ROCK!!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Lord of the Rings: Original Soundtrack Reissue (Album Review)

While most conversations surrounding the cinematic adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings center around director Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films from the early 2000s, it was director Ralph Bakshi’s animated film from 1978 that first took the story beyond the written word and introduced viewing audiences to the sights and sounds of Middle Earth. Along with Bakshi’s rotoscoped realism, the film’s Leonard Rosenman-composed soundtrack is one of its most magical and memorable elements.

Originally released as a double-vinyl LP in 1978, the film’s soundtrack has recently been given the reissue treatment (along with an unbelievable batch of film-related extras) from Concord Records as part of their Original Soundtrack Classics series. Alongside film score releases from Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Concord’s reissue of The Lord of the Rings soundtrack has been carefully crafted with both music fans and film buffs in mind.                                         

First, let’s talk about the music. Rosenman’s fantastical soundscapes will immediately transport listeners back to the animated adventures of Frodo and company, warmly accentuating the ups-and-downs of the Hobbit hero’s journey with his traveling companions. From the sweeping opening strains of “History of the Ring” to the bombastic blasts of “The Battle in the Mines/The Balrog” to the percussive thump of “Attack of the Orcs” to the majestic closing “The Voyage to Mordor,” all bookended by two arrangements of Rosenman’s “Theme from The Lord of the Rings,” the orchestration sounds vivid and booming in its double vinyl presentation. 

However, where The Lord of the Rings reissue really shines – and where Concord Records seriously pulled out all the stops – is in the packaging and the extras. First, both vinyl records are housed in a beautiful reproduction of the original 1978 gatefold jacket. Featuring spectacular artwork on the exterior and interior panels, the gatefold presentation really provides ample space for the detailed art to truly be seen and appreciated. Additionally, there is also a 16-page booklet of liner notes that features animation stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and a new Jon Burlingame-penned essay contextualizing Rosenman’s impact on music for film and television.

There is also a wealth of extra items that come with reissue, including a gorgeously huge 24” x 36” theatrical poster and a lobby card (both from the original marketing material from 1978), as well as reproductions of three items that were previously only available to Tolkien Fan Club members in the 1970-80s: a handsomely detailed map of Middle Earth, an animation cell featuring Frodo and Gandalf, and a gold sticker featuring the film’s stylized logo. All of these pieces are securely held in a sturdy box that protects the vinyl and the extras, while looking absolutely stunning (and really commanding it’s own space) within your vinyl collection.

With the beautiful replications, amazing attention to detail, and treasure trove of extras included on this reissue, this collection is seriously a treat for any fans of the film or of Tolkien’s work in general. I’m really looking forward to hearing what Concord will announce as their next batch of Original Soundtrack Classics early next year. If it’s anything like this treasure trove, you can bet you’ll be hearing about it from me.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

We Don't Need Roads by Caseen Gaines (Book Review)

When it comes to a pop cultural touchstone as celebrated and dissected as the Back to the Future trilogy has been for the last 30 years, you might think that all of the behind-the-scenes stories and apocryphal anecdotes would have been told by now. According to We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy from author Caseen Gaines, this is nowhere near the case. While masterfully deconstructing the iconic trilogy’s filmmaking process and its lasting cultural impact – as well as looking at the property’s various offshoots (a theme park ride, an animated series, two video games, a musical, etc.) – Gaines has effectively found a way to cast new light on a franchise that wasn’t exactly in danger of dimming any time soon. Crafting a read that is equal parts educational, emotional, analytical, and – perhaps, most importantly – enjoyable, Gaines takes his audience on a journey that examines both the logistical nuts-and-bolts involved in bringing the films to life and also the enduring heart of the beloved franchise that has resonated with audiences since the first film’s release in the summer of 1985.

To accomplish his task, Gaines embarked on an exhaustive interview process that enlisted the first-person accounts of over 50 cast and crew members, including brand new original interviews with Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Huey Lewis, and “the two Bobs” – co-writer/producer Bob Gale and co-writer/director Robert Zemeckis. With the insights gleaned from these interviews, Gaines pieces together a riveting oral history that is woven together with the many-layered strands of his own perceptive narrative thread. Whether discussing the visual effects process of what goes into the on-screen portrayal of a time-traveling Delorean with animator Wes Takahashi, the three film poster’s conceptual continuity design with illustrator Drew Struzan, or the harrowing hoverboard stunt-gone-awry with stuntwoman Cheryl Wheeler, Gaines manages to outline the mechanics of everything that goes into making a major motion picture in a way that perpetually highlights the grandiose magic of movie-making, while simultaneously getting amazing peaks behind the curtain.   

Along the way, Gaines adds volumes of context to well-known stories and even uncovers new ones that have previously never seen the light of day. It doesn’t matter if he’s outlining Michael J. Fox’s unbelievably tireless regimen (the young actor simultaneously filmed Family Ties during the day and the first Back to the Future film at night and on the weekends) or piecing together the multi-perspective debacle surrounding Crispin Glover’s strange impact over the entire trilogy, Gaines equally handles stories of praise and puzzlement with a balanced voice, an ingratiating wit, and a refreshing posture towards journalistic integrity. Overall, We Don’t Need Roads proves to be an engaging and informative read for new converts and devoted fan boys alike, a feat not easily achieved in today’s hyper-obsessive pop cultural landscape.

Along with We Don’t Need Roads, Gaines has also written two other critically acclaimed pop culture-based books, Inside Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon and A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic. With these three books, Gaines has not only touched on three of the most nostalgic nuggets of my own 1980s childhood, but he also continues to greatly contribute to the larger pop cultural conversation as to what makes for entertainment that endures long past its initial period of prominence. In a year filled to the brim with Back to the Future ephemera, We Don’t Need Roads may just be the most meaningful bit of the bunch.  

You can found out more about Caseen Gaines at


Friday, October 2, 2015

Valerie June: Memphis' Messenger of Love-Born Blues (Rolling Stone)

(This article originally appeared on Rolling StoneClick on the picture for the full article.