On The Road: A Folk Playlist

At the beginning of the new year I drove to Melbourne for three days. There were no hot meals and we only stopped to sleep in the closest located motel off the Hume highway. If you’re road tripping this year to a festival, a new city or even just heading home; I recommend pillows, pit stops and a well-considered soundtrack for your journey. Behold – my tried and true top 10.

1. Noah and the Whale – “5 Years Time”

Way back before Laura Marling broke Charlie Fink’s heart, this is what their music sounded like. I can’t resist a song lead by jolly ukulele chords so “5 Years Time” just gives me the warm fuzzies. Put this on your road trip playlist if your destination includes a beach or quaint country town. Guaranteed to inject a sense of wonder and adventure into any long journey.

2. Frightened Rabbit – “Old Old Fashioned”

When was the last time you felt victorious? This feeling occurs so rarely in our day-to-day lives that we need to be adequately prepared when the moment strikes. “Old Old Fashioned” is my victory song. I have it ready and waiting on days when I’m pre-empting the completion of something – the last day of a job, post-gig celebration or even just a new haircut. I also love the opening lyric, “Oh, turn off the TV. It’s killing us we never speak,” proving it’s greatness as a soundtrack for those who want to get away.

3. Gorgol Bordello – “Through the Roof ‘n’ Underground”

Years ago, someone recommended I watch Wristcutters: A Love Story and I’m recommending it again to you now. During most of the film, the characters are driving around a desert wasteland listening to Ukrainian gypsy punk band, Gorgol Bordello. For me, this song will always be synonymous with travel. Seriously though, watch this movie. It’s got Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon and bloody Tom Waits.

4. Bright Eyes – “Road to Joy”

Let’s face it. Most people like this album. It’s just a great album. The way it builds and swells between the verses; the explosive horn section; Connor Oberst’s unsteady vocals and crackling screams as he commands, “Let’s fuck it up boys – MAKE SOME NOISE!” Oberst pokes fun at his country and himself in this song; so it becomes like an enraged escapist anthem for me when I’m on the road.

5. Andrew Bird – “Fiery Crash”

This is such a travelling song. The lyrics force us to consider our fate as mortal beings and seize the day; although sonically the music is perfect for a road trip soundtrack with its glorious violin and catchy down-stroked guitar chords. Enjoy this one. Armchair Apocrypha was a legendary album and I’m still racking my brain as to why Bird isn’t a household name.

6. Daniel Johnston – “Ain’t no woman gonna make a George Jones outta me”

As the title suggests, Johnston reflects on the life of country singer, George Jones, who eventually became more know for his messy divorces, drinking and violent attitude than his songs. But what this country and blues tune offers during a long drive is a sense of willpower and righteousness. Listen to this one especially if you’re driving through any small country towns. It’s a great feeling.

7. Mason Jennings – “Godless”

Perhaps your reason for a road trip is a little less virtuous. Robbed a bank? Killed a man? This song is designed for people on the run. An utter folk-rock legend, Mason Jennings’s first release is still one of my favourite albums. This song in particular is hilarious and intense.

8. The Mountain Goats – “Sax Rohmer #1”

Maybe you’re on a long trip back home. In this case, John Darnielle’s wailing confession, “I am coming home to you with my own blood in my mouth,” will suit you just fine. Sure, it’s about death and impending doom, but that should get your adrenaline pumping for the big drive ahead. Do it, it’s a winner.

9. Neutral Milk Hotel – “Holland, 1945”

Jeff Mangum is another celebrated songwriter: “But now we must pick up every piece/Of the life we used to love/Just to keep ourselves/At least enough to carry on.” This song works really well on a road trip because of the upbeat tempo and distorted guitar (distorted everything, really). It’s addictive and fun. I recommend the entire album but you’d be stretched to find someone who doesn’t.

10. Violent Femmes – “Gimme The Car”

A picturesque snapshot of teen angst, this folk punk song got the lead singer expelled from school. Sure, you can listen to “Blister in the Sun,” but chuck this one on the playlist for good measure. This song was my introduction to The Violent Femmes and I’m never going back.

Review: His Merry Men with The Bon Scotts, The Empress Hotel, Melbourne, VIC

Photo courtesy of His Merry Men

His Merry Men with The Bon Scotts
The Empress Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
Saturday 23rd March, 2013

Last Saturday night everyone was having a house party. There were backyard bonfires, beers and friendly encounters to be made. But in the midst all of this merriment, I headed over to The Empress Hotel for some late night tunes. Entertaining the patrons of the dark, pub-like venue were two headliners with, in totality, more instruments than band members.

This wasn’t just the final show of the tour. Local folk band, The Bon Scotts, were also farewelling their drummer, Jono. Their heart-felt goodbye featured everything from mandolin and banjo to hand-held harp – and that was just from one band member. Opening with “Lovesong for a Riot,” the band immediately caught my attention, showcasing their creative fusion of traditional folk, unique percussive elements and raspy, Scotland-inspired rock. An accordion and xylophone provided an eclectic music experience for the listener.

As the set continued, their compositions offered variety and energy. The bassist in particular had boundless kilojoules at his disposal, rocking out at the back like he’d just won the lottery. Three songs stood out for me: “The Way Home,” “Polluted Sea,” mainly for the lyric, “throw ourselves unconditionally into love,” and a hilarious but memorable song about dying at the hands of C.G.I. These dudes were sweaty and screaming, which combined with elegantly written lyrics is all I can ask for in a live show. They finished off with a glorious performance of “The Kids are Coming” and I was already liking their Facebook page.

It was almost a logistical nightmare as the 7-piece packed up their gear while a 9-piece simultaneously unpacked theirs. With heads held high, His Merry Men piled on to the stage, decked out in their finest pajamas for the last show of the Pillow Tour. There was a range of sleepwear on show, including everything from boxers and striped leggings to Mr. Men print flannels. Andy introduced the horn section on tenor saxophone before the electric guitar joined in with an explosive riff. The band confronts their audience with a confident blend of musical styles.

The ‘Robin Hood’ of this tale is Megan Crocombe, a force to be reckoned with in her tenacity and robust vocal acrobatics. She’s cheeky, uninhibited and wildly contagious as the male members joined her in “Summer Song,” chanting, “Got no job, got no future, but that’s okay cause we got the summer time.” My personal favourite, “Super Secret Spies,” is almost a tribute to James Bond but added an element of comedy to the show as the horn section struck various secret agent poses. A man sporting a polka dot onesie made eerie theremin-like noises on a launchpad while the singer yelped and howled like a lonely dog.

You can tell just by watching them interact that the members are good friends. They are completely comfortable on the stage and not just because they’re wearing pajamas. Moreover, each individual ‘merry man’ displays exceptional skill on his or her chosen instrument. Kudos goes to the guitarist in particular, who unleashed a tirade of fat and funky guitar riffs, which at different moments throughout the set borrowed from the styles of Jimi Hendrix, Tom Morello and John Mayer. This demonstrated not only his versatility as a musician but also his child-like passion for music that was palpable as he rocked out in socks and crab-print shorts like he was just practicing in his bedroom at three in the morning.

The band also performed “OP,” a sexy downtempo number with a drumbeat that reminded me of Cake’s “Shut the Fuck Up.” The Brisbane cohort also paid tribute to the resignation of Jono the drummer by inviting him on stage for a mellow tune and a bit of a cuddle. After a song involving some Spanish bull-fighting music and a barefoot trumpet solo, Megan thanked the crowd and the ceiling fan, ditching the mic stand for the final song.

There was so much happening on stage that I struggled to write it all down. One minute the horn section were dancing; then they were jumping; then they abandoned their instruments altogether as the piano had a jazz aneurysm. A few false endings and they finished with flashing lights and wailing. His Merry Men are such a visually engaging band and definitely brought their own house party tonight. I would love to catch these guys again on a bigger stage, with or without the pajamas.

Review: The Pierce Brothers Blind Boys Run EP Launch, The Evelyn Hotel

The Pierce Brothers with Al Parkinson, Elliot Friend and Lillis
Evelyn Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
21st March, 2013

A forceful combination of wind and rain threatened to hinder any social outings last Thursday night. Nevertheless, a large crowd still filed in to the cosy recluse of Fitzroy’s Evelyn Hotel. Adorned with red velvet curtains, Moroccan rugs and electric chandeliers; it’s home away from home on a cold night. The stage is awash with chains of fairy lights as eager Melbournians pile around the bar for a beer and cider; some making commitments to soft couches for the evening’s showcase of local talent.

Al Parkinson is the first face in the spotlight, wielding her trusty ukulele. The room suddenly takes on the atmosphere of an underground jazz club. Her voice is captivating and smooth, clearly inspired by 50s crooners like Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. It’s very hard to pull off a whole set with such an understated instrument as the ol’ uke. To be honest, her studio recordings boast a much fuller sound and I’d be keen to see her play with the backing band in toe.

Giving credit where credit is due, her performance of “Story Song” gains an immediate reaction from the chattering onlookers. The stage lights dim and many fingers begin to click in time. I keep pretending we’re in a jazz club. Parkinson sings, “The salt is dripping from my eyes,” a capella with heavy reverb on her breathy vocals. She captures the audience.

In contrast, her banter was wildly distracting for me. Imagine driving along a coastal road, feasting your eyes on the magnificence of nature, but then hitting something cute every hour. She had two different personas for speaking and singing. The chirpy soloist picks up the ukulele again for a final beach-inspired ditty proclaiming, “All I need is you.”

The room is 10% dreadlocks as local four-piece, Elliot Friend, gather onto the stage. “Hello, large crowd,” one of them cries as the first song opens with guitar and kick drum. The male and female vocalists share beautiful harmonies and I can’t help digging the PJ Harvey tone coming from the frontwoman. That’s a great voice right there. Unfortunately, the instrumentation kind of takes a back seat. The guitar is more out of tune than purposefully dissonant, which is a shame because they’ve written some good songs. I’d really love to see these guys after a few months’ rehearsals because their brand of folk meets Portishead pop rock is the type of music I really love.

After a quick trip across the road to eat the biggest donut I’ve ever seen, the venue is reaching capacity. It’s pretty much a sauna. Folk outfit, Lillis, perform a varied set that makes punters excited for the main act. Starting off with ukulele, percussion and guitar, these guys show off their brand of John Butler-inspired tunes. There’s some impressive guitar skill on show and the Irish frontman dedicates a song to birthday girl and local singer-songwriter, Tanya Batt, describing her as, “kind of like a little butterfly.”

After some accomplished didgeridoo and cajon box drumming, the band launches into a traditional folk song. The sweaty performers start chanting, “She is handsome, she is pretty,” while the audience claps along. I begin wishing their whole show had been like this. I desperately want to dance in a circle holding hands with a longhaired maiden while throwing flowers around a maypole and shit. We should all lock dreads and skip in time.

As the throng of spectators pushes to the front, I’m not the only one feeling claustrophobic. There’s dudes with dark armpit patches sharing stories about ex-lovers, a few oldies leaning on the far wall with a modest beer, groups of excited girls wielding handbags and a clear backwards cap to energy drink ratio. I get the impression that most of these people know each other. A crew of friends and family whistles and barks as The Pierce Brothers enter with a traditional, “G’day!”

They sling guitars over their shoulders and bust out a big Aussie folk song. Sibling bands are undeniably heart-warming because you can’t help imagine their parents beaming proudly from the back of the venue with Uncle John and the cousins. Years of busking on the streets of Melbourne have made these guys pretty tight performance-wise and they generate as much raucous energy as a full band. Unfortunately, they kill the mood with song number two, a slow composition that offers too much contrast with the dance-folk opener.

As the show continues, they perpetuate an obvious folk muso stereotype. The Pierce Brothers are family barbeques, backyard parties, Byron Bay, old sheep dogs and sweaty road trips. In a love song entitled “Thought of You,” they ask, “Do you remember that time we watched kings and then got high?” The sound of a stomp box pounds on everyone’s chests as they unleash a pre-empted harmonica solo.

Just when I think the set needs some variation, the brothers invite Tanya Batt to the stage for a cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”. The birthday girl brandishes a trusty glass of whiskey as my boyfriend whispers, “Don’t fuck up this song. I love this song.” The combination of female/male vocals gets a big cheer from the crowd and the song turns into a karaoke night with audience members singing along.

Next up is a song entitled “White Whale”, a folk jam with nautical imagery of captains, waves and sailing. Lyrically strong, this tune sends the audience into an alcohol-infused trance. The pair attempts another cover – “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel – and some songs that are a bit Mumford and Sons-y for my liking but encourage uninhibited dancing nonetheless. They perform a self-confessed ‘hoe-down song’ that is quite refreshing. It features not only the title of the tour, “Blind boys run”, but also a dramatic pause before crashing back into the second verse.

They play Triple J Unearthed’s roots chart-topper, “The Anchor”, fulfilling a desire for electric guitar solos. Although some of the vocal harmonies are flat, the crowd sings along to the lyrics with unbridled delight. I prick up my ears at the closing number, which has a Spanish flamenco vibe.

We’re all in a Ricky Martin video by the time the chorus hits. As the brothers feign an exit from the stage, a handful of people demand an encore. In response, one brother remarks, “Encores are fun because you can go backstage and have a shot of whiskey,” before ending the evening with an Irish song responding to John Butler’s “Ocean”.

This event showcased some of the local emerging talent Melbourne’s folk scene has to offer. Although I thought the $15 entry price was a bit steep for people you’d usually catch busking for free, there’s definitely some potential here. I’m interested to see what these bands’ futures hold.

Review: Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse

Image Courtesy of Frightened Rabbit

I hesitated before listening to this album because I loved The Midnight Organ Fight. It was awarded embarrassingly frequent rotation in my car, home and iPod. Gradually, I learned all the lyrics and screamed them at full volume down the highway on my way to work. That album will always take me back to university; the 19-year-old me pacing awkwardly through the library, all frizzy hair and baggy pants.

But a friend finally coaxed me to give Pedestrian Verse a listen. One Friday at 4am, I put the headphones on to hear the first line: “I’m that dickhead in the kitchen giving wine to your best girl’s glass”. Immediately, I was back. After several years of loving this band and loving this album, I’ve realise one thing to be completely true:

Frightened Rabbit are better than Mumford and Sons.

I’m not here to rock the boat.

I’m not here to make disapproving faces or point fingers.

It’s just the truth and I can give you three major reasons as to why.

1. Where Frightened Rabbit demonstrate their versatility as musicians in terms of song structure, mood and genre; Mumford and Sons don a uniform folk routine. As nice as a rambling banjo line can be, this device is too often a prominent feature in every song. In a January interview with Spin, Hutchinson disapproved of Babel’s attempt at “shovelling the same shit” from the previous Mumford and Sons album.

2. No one curses like a Scotsman. It’s a simple fact.
When I hear Marcus admitting he “really fucked it up this time” I can’t help comparing it to Scott’s, “after months of grieving, fuck the grief I’m leaving.” Suddenly, Marcus looks like a big wuss who lacks emotional charge and creativity with his apathetic use of a clichéd phrase. Pedestrian Verse drops enough bastards, dickheads and shits to satisfy a Monday morning assembly of angst-ridden teenagers.

3. Marcus Mumford has got the basics but Scott Hutchinson is a born storyteller. In “Snow Still Melting”, Frightened Rabbit use the metaphor of a freezing cold night to describe a previous relationship: “We are ruled by a governing frost. It melts beneath alcohol briefly and then bites back.” Whereas, the opening lines of “I Will Wait” feature a simile that doesn’t make sense: “I came home like a stone and I fell heavy into your arms.” How do you come home like a stone, Marcus? Does someone throw you through the window or do you simply wait in the garden bed for someone to find you?

Honestly, I’m just frustrated that Pedestrian Verse, with all its darkness, guts and self-deprecation, isn’t getting the attention it rightfully deserves.

But enough with the comparisons; let’s do this.

The opening song, “Acts of Man” introduces the album with a simple piano riff, understated vocals and violin; building steadily with a tom-heavy drum section and robust electric guitar. Vocal harmonies asserting, “Not here, not here,” hint at an impending explosion. Hutchinson’s renowned cynicism makes a grand entrance when he suggests, “let’s promise every girl we marry we’ll always love them when we probably won’t.” This song is anything but predictable. At the 3:30 mark, the band launches into an indie-electronic style jam with heavy reverb on the lead guitar. As such, Frightened Rabbit give their audience a taste of everything that’s on the menu this evening.

Somewhat abruptly, the Scottish five-piece breaks into an upbeat tune called “Backyard Skulls”. Amid pop sensibilities and an unexpectedly 80s synth line, there is detailed imagery about buried secrets. Lyrically, Hutchinson plays with the extended metaphor of having skeletons in one’s closet, showcasing the band’s inescapable folk foundations. In fact, “The Woodpile” is distinctly folk in sound and style. With an addictively explosive chorus, this song is carefully constructed to produce emotional intensity with a catchy melody, flourishing tambourine and subtle orchestral elements that would threaten to distort the track on a set of poor speakers. The guitars swell into an electrifying solo and chorus refrain. Consistently addressing the listener, the undeniably Scottish front man howls: “We’ll speak in our secret tongues,” which soon dissipates in to the schoolboy-esque whistling on “Late March, Death March”, a catchy and anthemic chant about a drunken argument.

There’s a fair portion of dark subject matter on this record too. “State Hospital” displays lyrical density as Hutchinson describes the inner turmoil of a young girl. Images of death, sickness and social isolation are confronting as we hear the album’s title: “A slipped disc in the spine of community / A bloody curse word made pedestrian verse.” This song is intriguing in its simplicity and the raucous chanting in the outro of, “All is not lost,” reassures the song’s protagonist of a light at the end of the tunnel. Hutchinson describes this song as his “first foray into writing about someone else’s life and constructing a character other than a version of myself.”

Similarly, “Nitrous Gas” begins with stripped-back guitar and a display of the band’s newfound experimentation with minor keys. The backing vocals are haunting and a cluster of cymbal crashes tug at the listener’s heartstrings. Hutchinson’s whisky-soaked croaking about artificially induced laughter is witty and self-destructive, sharing similarities (for me at least) with his temperament in “Poke” from their previous album.

My personal favourite is a track entitled “The Oil Slick”, which leaves a lasting impression on the standard edition of the album. A tight, upbeat combination of electric guitar and sliding bass line is met with a resigned attitude towards future romance. Hutchinson continues to find fault in himself, as his sense of humour ranges from the self-critical, “Only an idiot would swim through the shit I write,” and the hilarious, “I’ve got a voice like a gutter in a toxic storm.” This song is undoubtedly catchy. Midway through, “The Oil Slick” falls into a deep repetitive drum beat, generating force with the wailing positivity of “Still got hope so I’ll think we’ll be fine in these disastrous times” and a horn section reminiscent of the beloved Neutral Milk Hotel. Slowly, the drums and electric guitar dissipate into a flock of chattering birds and the rustle of tree branches.

Overall, this album showcases an evolution of Frightened Rabbit’s music structurally, stylistically and lyrically. The tracks range from anthemic synth beats to delicate folk lamentations, all conducted by the biting and reckless persona of their tenacious bearded front man.

The band considers Pedestrian Verse to be their best work to date. So sink your teeth into some rich and seasoned Scottish folk-rock, because Babel’s only going to leave you hungry.

Frightened Rabbit Tour Dates:

27th April to 11th May – Groovin’ the Moo
Thursday 2nd May – The Zoo, Brisbane, QLD
Wednesday 8th May – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
Thursday 9th May – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney, NSW

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