2016 Didn't Suck That Much (At Least Not Musically)

There’s a rule in music…well, there’s a rule in my musical world:

If they hang out with Josh and Garth of The Rutabega, they make damn fine music.

This has held true through numerous events and opening acts. Really, the only exception I can think of is myself and, well, I don’t make any music at all. The rule certainly applies to what I deem my favorite find of 2016 (I really should come up with a name for this…the Golden Needle Award? The Drop Of The Year? Or maybe I shouldn’t).

I’m speaking of Jake Simmons & The Little Ghosts. I caught them while playing with The Rutabega at McCormick’s in South Bend and, while the late night show was making me feel a bit old, the music of JS&TLG revived me in a way I haven’t felt since I was a punk-ass kid watching Dave Kirchgessner of Mustard Plug hang from that weird bar above the two-inch stage at the original Intersection (cheers if you remember what I’m talking about).

JS&TLG make solid rock music, with high-energy dives into punk rock, blues, and, seemingly, whatever the hell sound they deem appropriate for each song. The bleeding guitars are best played on high volume and, hey, don’t be shy about singing along. Jake’s lyrics traverse the realms of quirky, angry, and sentimental, never once feeling anything but genuine.

As is often the case for me with my end of year favorites, most, if not all of the JS&TLG music I’m speaking of was released prior to 2016, but , hey, this was the year that I discovered it (you could chalk this up to my being slow and behind, but I prefer to blame it on the massive amount of great music being made today).

I’ve put together a Jake Simmons mixtape for you to check out some of my favorites. Make no mistake, though, as anything short of picking up the entirety of every release is simply shorting yourself of rock and roll greatness. And why would you do that to yourself? Check out that mix tape over on Spotify:

AtND Jake Simmons & The Little Ghosts Mix Tape

As for the rest of 2016, well, many claims have been made as to the negative nature of the year thanks to numerous deaths of our heroes, bad news stories, and the embarrassing and horrific election of Trump to the White House, but remember, nothing is all good or bad. Whatever else aside, 2016 certainly was a solid year for good music:

(Note: If you’re playing catch up, click on the album or song title to purchase the music from Amazon and help AtND pay the bills at the same time!)

Car Seat Headrest gave us Teens Of Denial, a rock album that finds new depth with each listen.

Amanda Palmer has found a prolific stride thanks to her reliance on Patreon, using the direct support of her fans to give us a constant supply of new and excellent music. It was by fortunate coincidence that AFP’s tour had hit my region the weekend after the election (not to mention the death of Leonard Cohen), giving me a place to process my shock, disappointment, and upset. The concert featured an emotional evening of music, with sing-alongs, scream-alongs, stomping, and crying. Amanda brought along guests, inviting Peter Sagal of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and the Vice President of Illinois’ Planned Parenthood to deliver messages of love and action. Her husband, author Neil Gaiman, was in the room as well. He performed a reading (with Amanda backing him musically) of Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” before spending much of his evening with their son in the back of the room, teaching him to walk a few feet from where I was standing (I put my fanboy away and just watched the moment in awe). Speaking of that reading of “Democracy”, you can pick that track up and, in the process, help out PEN America’s efforts to defend free speech by going here.

The Avett Brothers gave us their best album in years with True Sadness. You can check out my review of that here. I saw them too the weekend after the election, a last minute addition to my concert schedule that was the usual emotion packed evening from TAB, heightened so by current events. With protestors expressing similar feelings just around the corner from the Van Andel Arena, the crowd roared in defiance the line “your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected” during “Head Full Of Doubt, Road Full Of Promise“.

Swet Shop Boys brought us the Indian/Pakistan/American hip-hop album Cashmere, full of anger and commentary about our culture’s treatment of those of Middle Eastern descent (and not to mention all of those sick beats).

If you somehow missed it, Drive-By Truckers certainly broke new ground with American Band, giving us the American rock album we desperately need in our current culture.

And Charles Bradley gave us Changes, reminding us the true meaning of the word “soul” and recording an amazing cover of, oddly, Black Sabbath.

And we can’t forget all of the awesome coming from Grand Rapids’ The Crane Wives, giving us the epic Foxlore when I was still busy singing along with Coyote Stories and Safe Ship, Harbored. Watch for them in 2017. I expect amazing things.

Justin Wells returned from the ashes of Fifth On The Floor with one of the best American rock albums I heard all year in Dawn in the Distance, about his life as a musician, an outcast, and a father.

PUP gave us The Dream Is Over, a mischievous, loud, and ultimately fun punk rock record worthy of losing one’s voice while screaming along and playing far too loud.

So much good music. So whatever the “dumpster fire” view of 2016 you may have, remember unrest and upset makes for some fine music and certainly gives us a soundtrack for fighting the battles ahead. And, oh, do we have battles ahead.

I want to thank you all for another great year of support. Remember, if you love what we do, you can support us directly at our Patreon campaign or visit any of our sponsor links.

Let’s finish 2016 with our heads high and our hands ready for the battles of 2017. Until then, here’s to life.

Record Store Day Treasure

I’ve been driven to the Internet not out of convenience, but out of sheer necessity.  Coming from a small town in rural Michigan, I’ve never had many options for music shops.  We have the over-priced mall CD/DVD stores, but even those are few and far between.  We have the big box electronics store with their ever-shrinking media section.  That’s about it.  Long before iTunes was the mega-store of online music retail and purchasing direct from bands was a regular option, I had to turn to the Web to find music.

Imagine then, my joy in realizing that this year, I would be able to participate in Record Store Day, not at one, but at three locally owned music shops.

You see, a while back I made the move from my hometown to the little burg where I worked, where my girlfriend lived, where I spent most of my waking hours with my friends.  A moment of clarity made me aware that the added rent of living closer to those things was still less of a cost than what I was paying in gas to drive there each day.  There have been many benefits to this move and I’m glad to add Record Store Day to that list.

My first stop was Ignition Music.  I honestly can’t say how I discovered this fantastic little shop, but I know the Internet had something to do with it.  Their regular newsletter started coming my way…I’m sure I signed up at some point.  I’d kept tabs on them for a while, but as the shop is a good hour away and I’m a broke student, I hadn’t yet had the chance to experience the awesome described in their emails; the latest rare releases, an awesome stock of back catalog goodies in various formats, and live shows performed regularly in the store.  Of course, then Record Store Day came along and it seemed like the appropriate time to make the journey.

Even after a late night at the Woodfire, I sprung out of bed at 6AM, loaded up on coffee, and hit the road.  After parking across the street and making my way up to the door, I greeted the first person I saw with “Happy Record Store Day!”  The positive and resounding response I received sold me…this day would be awesome.

Ignition did a fantastic job handling the crowd, with an excellent ticketed number system and wonderfully organized tables of the exclusive RSD merchandise.  The staff was awesome as well.  And it didn’t hurt that there was a fantastic coffee shop immediately next door.  I had a difficult time dragging myself (and my wallet) away.  I’ll certainly return.

I made two other stops through the day, next making my way over to Orbit Music.  I’d actually spent some time in the store in my younger days, but years had passed and whatever memory I had of it had been pushed aside with the assumption that they were long closed in the age of digital media.  It was my recent conversation with the Moore Brothers (which will be featured in the upcoming episode of Red Chuck Pod, May 3rd, 2014) that brought them back to my mind.  Tom Moore mentioned the store and I reacted with a “they’re still there?!” and I had the second stop on my Record Store Day tour.

The third stop came from just around the corner in Niles’ own Rumor Has It.  This was after a bit of resting up at home, grabbing Kristin, and walking downtown for some food and fun.

I believe this tweet sums up the day best:

Five hours of sleep, unshowered and unshaven, newly broke, and feeling awesome.

So let’s get to the swag, shall we?  I present to you my Record Store Day Treasure:

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Veruca Salt

Veruca Salt

This is the one I came out for, the one that had me changing work schedules and waking at ridiculous hours.  I was coordinating with my friend Jenny in Boston via text, as we were both seeking copies of the limited release and I was closer to the band’s hometown of Chicago.  She was my constant companion through the day as we waited in long lines and dealt with record store staff instructions to not “trample anyone”.

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Bruce Springsteen- American Beauty

Bruce Springsteen- American Beauty

It’s Bruce.  Performing all of the instruments.  Come on.

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Drive-By Truckers- Dragon Pants EP

Drive-By Truckers- Dragon Pants EP

I had a digital version of this EP thanks to my pre-order of the most recent DBT album.  For reasons still unknown to myself and their distributor, that digital download never did work.  No worries, though, as I now own the thing in it’s physical form and on digital from a working download code that came inside.

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The Muppet Movie

The Muppet Movie

This is not the limited re-release from this year.  I nearly purchased that version numerous times throughout the day, but I figured I’d pushed the budget too much.  It was at my last stop that Kristin stumbled across a beautifully kept original edition.  So, yeah, I got that one.

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Sun Record Company

Sun Record Company

“Get me something you think I’d like” were Kristin’s words to me.  This was the answer.

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George Carlin- Class Clown

George Carlin- Class Clown

It occurs to me that I recently became a guy that collects stand-up on vinyl.  I’m not sure how else to explain the pile sitting next to the stereo and I’m not sure when that started.  But, yeah, apparently that’s a thing I do now.

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And finally:

I’ll leave you with these last words and my last prize:

Peanuts Themed Portable Case Record Player

Portable Record Player

He kept a loaded gun in the closet

Screen Door

It starts with the screen door slam.

Not in a sun’s going down, the kids coming inside, summer fun kind of way.

No, there are no visions of Mary’s dancing and her dress waving.

Ominous is the word.

Ominous is the rusted cry, the foreboding squeal, the swing of the door that signals the arrival.

Or maybe the departure.

The hard clap of old wood, dried, neglected, colliding into it’s counterpart.

Has he left for work or returned home after the long day?

Is it his exit or his arrival that forebodes? Or is it both?

he kept a loaded gun in the closet

I remember well the evening the questions first arose. Long had I listened to the music and, I suppose, I always wondered a bit about that gun.

But as Doug Poole, the most charming man I’d ever met, and Margaret, my companion in adventure and mischief, stood in the unfinished remnants of the century old dining room, I realized just how deep those words ran and how occupied a piece of the back of my mind had been with them.

and another one in the dresser drawer

just in case the one in the closet didn’t make a big enough hole

We stood over a fourteen dollar boombox, holding our beverages, some of us staring at the ceiling, some of us staring at each other, some of us staring into the back of our eyelids.

Pressing the back and repeat button over.

And over.

The squeal and the slam. The deliberate pick of guitar strings. The slow, painful wait for the first words, for the indication of where we were headed.

But that was the point, I suppose. Slow, painful, and waiting were her days. Or perhaps his.

Who was the gun for?

For her, I opined. He left it for her. Ever the optimist, I professed a tale of love and concern. And action, preparation. Sure, of twisted motivation, drawn from a well of sadness and anxiety. But he left it for her. Out of love.

Because maybe one day, she would realize how important she was. And how that importance put her high above him, so high that she couldn’t be there, that he didn’t deserve her.

The gun was her exit.

There was silence. And I realized the stares were now focused on me.

So…he wanted her to shoot him so she could leave? Hasn’t he ever heard of divorce?”

…”

Well. Maybe. Marriage is for life and maybe, in his mind, obviously twisted, I mean, he’s obviously not seeing clearly, but maybe in his mind it’s til death do we part and all that. He’s trapped her, see. He knows it. So he’s shown her an exit.”

Maybe the gun is for him to use on himself when she inevitably leaves him.”

Couldn’t it just be he was concerned a burglar might come while he’s gone and he gave her the gun to protect herself because he loves her…”

Murmurs of possible agreement.  More discussion.  More theories.  It would go on for hours, never to be satisfied.  The one conclusion: the story was one of hidden fears and things never communicated.

What did the gun represent?

Escape, it seemed?  But for her, a trapped and lonely housewife who could do better?  If that’s even who she was. Or for him?

What made him so afraid?

And was that even a screen door?

 

he kept a loaded gun in the closet

and another one in the dresser drawer

just in case the one in the closet

didn’t make a big enough hole

she had his breakfast ready every morning

and his lunch in a box

sitting out by the kitchen door

she’d make sure he had everything he needed

and hug his neck and tell him tell how much she loved him

and it was beautiful

you should have seen it

and she’d make herself a pot of coffee

just the way she liked it

and sit down and enjoy the quiet of the house all alone

but, by two o’clock or so

every afternoon

the quiet would start to get to her

and she’d watch the clock until he came back home

and she understood just what he needed

when he came home every evening

was just a couple of beers

and a couple of minutes

to cuss about his day

so she’d fix him a nice hot supper

while he ranted and raved about one thing or another

and she never once told him

what he’s going on about didn’t add up to a thing

and she never touched that gun in the closet

it was his and it was there just because he wanted it to be

she didn’t get out much

so she never knew what it was that made him so afraid

most women today would say she was a disgrace

most men would say she wasn’t much to look at

and they’d all say she’d be a lot better off

if she cared a little more about what they all think

she’d have a life of her own if she had a little pride

some silicone implants and another man on the side

but she’s got a loaded gun in the closet

and it’s there anytime that she wants it

and her one and only man

he knows it

and that’s why he put it there in the first place

 

It always starts with a song.

I recall sitting in my mother’s bedroom at the far end of my childhood home.  Big picture windows flooded sunlight down on a cardboard box full of vinyl, a rickety table-top stereo, and my five-year-old self, crossed-legged on the floor, picking through the most grand selection of tunes.

The choices presented me with the best of 60’s pop and hippie love fests.  70’s psychedelic rock.  A few hair bands.  Bill Cosby original vinyl (though, that’s for another post).  These were the jewels of my parents record collection, certainly treasured, if by no one else than me.

Street SurvivorsThe original recalled cover for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors.

I loved it all, but the best was the stack Southern Rock.  It had my two favorite things; lots of guitars and great stories.  I wouldn’t say I understood the tales at my young age, but I knew they had something in common with me.  There was a tie between running through the woods of my father’s house and the anthems ringing out from Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers.  Anthems for an average kid from rural, sometimes backwoods, Michigan.

As I grew older, I found myself thrown in with the alternative music movement.  Grunge from the 90’s.  The weird, synthesized sounds of the 80’s.  I turned to punk.  Eventually hip-hop.

“Country” became a four letter word when it came to my music as a teenager.  Anything even remotely related, be it Southern Rock or Folk, was out the door.  The twang was more than a sound for me. It was a signal for trouble; the prejudices of the rural,  the perceived ignorance of the South, my own difficult relationship with my father.  Mostly, though, it was just “lame”.  That’s what my non-conformist community of alt-rockers and punks were telling me.  How could I disagree?

It wasn’t until much later I realized the connection, but I kept that thread of that music alive during that time in my favorite band, Roger Clyne’s crew called simply The Refreshments.  Perhaps you remember them.  Likely not.  You may remember this:

Less apparent in the music of the Refreshments but blatantly in my face (or my ears, rather) in Clyne’s post-Refreshments outfit, the Peacemakers, those same set of elements started to reveal themselves in my musical tastes as I hit my twenties, eventually becoming what is still my most prominent iTunes playlist, one I simply call “Americana.”

Springsteen.  The Avett Brothers.  Old Crow Medicine Show.  Skynyrd.  American Minor.  Roger Clyne.  Drive-By Truckers.  Dylan.  Nickel Creek.  Sons of Bill.  Gaslight Anthem.  The Hold Steady.

It’s the stories, always relatable, certainly more so than most other genres, whose music either lacked completely the element of storytelling or told tales so grand it was to my ear what Star Wars was to my eyes; fucking awesome, but still science fiction.  But no, these stories, these bits of “Americana”, these were real.  Often dark (and perhaps that’s why they felt so real).  This was life.

Questions and struggles.  Celebration and heartache.  Life and death.  And the stupid fun we have along the way.  Rattled out over a single acoustic instrument or blasted from stacked amps.  It’s the stories.  Americana.