Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The New Pornographers 
The Surprise Knock
In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights

The second single from the upcoming ninth album from The New Pornographers is even more exciting than their last single “Falling Down the Stairs Of Your Smile”, and that one was also very exciting. Musically it sounds like a cross between “Mass Romantic” the song from the band’s first album, and AC Newman’s (Carl Newman’s solo name) song “The Palace At 4am” from his second solo album “Get Guilty”. 

Lyrically it seems to be about feeling uncomfortable about a situation or person, and then everything turning out okay.... and what it all adds up to is a preview to an album that might be one of their best, and a logical progression from their last album “Whiteout Conditions”.  

Andrea Weiss

The New Pornographers 
“The Surprise Knock”
In the Morse Code of Brake Lights

The second single from the upcoming ninth album by The New Pornographers is even more exciting than their last single “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile,” and that one was also very exciting. Musically it sounds like a cross between the song “Mass Romantic” from the band’s first album, and AC Newman’s song “The Palace At 4 AM” from his second solo album Get Guilty

Lyrically it seems to be about feeling uncomfortable about a situation or person, and then everything turning out okay. What it all adds up to is a preview of an album that might be one of their best, and a logical progression from their last album, Whiteout Conditions.

Andrea Weiss

Wednesday, August 21, 2019


The Center Won’t Hold
Mom And Pop

I almost never give bad reviews, because it’s damn hard to make a living as a musician, let alone have the success Sleater-Kinney have had. And I am a long-time fan. I also never cry “sell-out,” because there is no such thing. Everyone needs and wants money so they can live properly. Anyone who says money is this, that and the other thing evil has enough money and power to afford to say it. This band hasn’t sold out at all, they just want payday.

Nevertheless, this is not going to be an altogether positive review. Let’s start with what’s good first. St. Vincent’s production is great. The band’s lyrics, politically and relationship-wise, are as sharp as ever. I like the way they’ve updated their sound, as I guess they felt they’d gone as far as they could with their old one. That’s not bad; nothing wrong with staying current.

It’s their idea of staying current that’s the problem. The band has made an early-to-mid 80s new wave album, and the 80s band they most resemble in tone and form here is the unjustly forgotten We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Going To Use It, A.K.A. Fuzzbox. Sometimes Fuzzbox sounds better than this. If this change of direction is why Janet left, I can’t blame her. There are better ways to be modern than this, and Corin and Carrie are too good guitarists to put their guitars down in favor of synths.

So take this review for what it’s worth, and approach with caution. As I say, this isn’t a bad album, but I wish it was better, and a lot more truly modern.

Andrea Weiss

Friday, August 9, 2019

To Wild Homes

An interview with Rex and Christina from The Armoires

I am a member of the "Scott Miller, Game Theory, The Loud Family" group on Facebook. It was there that I first heard The Armoires, with their cover of The New Pornographers' "The Laws Have Changed." TNP is already updated college rock, and I liked this update of the update very much. A violin taking a guitar line, Rex and Christina's off-kilter vocal harmonies, and a slightly folk/rock feel all add up to a great cover.

I bought Side Three, the Armoires EP this song is on, and really liked it too. The EP just made me want to hear more.

And now there is more, with the release of their second full-length album, Zibaldone. What a great album this is: lots of moving parts, all forming a teeming whole of a world, with terrific production from Plasticsoul leader Steven Wilson.

They remind me of Nields here, too, whose gently askew, very cheerful folk/rock is, in tone and form, a good fit.

Rex and Christina, who are not a couple, just good friends and band mates, were kind enough to answer my questions.

AW: Who are your influences besides The New Pornographers and Game Theory?

Rex: Those are both huge ones. I don't know that we soundlike TNP in particular, but their whole aesthetic and approach were the template for how the band works, something I was chasing in the three-piece I had with The Armoires' rhythm section before I met Christina. That band was sort of like The Jam meets Dylan maybe, but the material started to seem to call for a bigger canvas, and the Pornos were it. Christina brought everything that I was imagining and so much more.  Together we have that “feel” without copying the “sound.” And yes, Scott Miller was absolutely a lyrical, melodic, and conceptual hero, alongside Robyn Hitchcock on that level. A lot of people see us as a very 60s influenced band, but I'm way more prone to taking that as a given – Kinks and Byrds at the top of the heap – and citing my college rock heroes instead. The Go-Betweens are massive to me. John Cale's a huge inspiration. And Camper Van Beethoven. I'm surprised more people don't peg that one. Must be the sunshine pop harmonies! There's a lot in the mix.

Christina: I think the first song I ever learned the lyrics to was “Pinball Wizard” when I was really young, and my friend learned “Last Train to Clarksville.” This was us trying to absorb every word of each song. We would drop the needle and write down the lyrics, and then drop the needle again. The band I later joined in Detroit – this was the mid-80s – was a very new wave, pop punk thing called Breakfast! That connected with the stuff I loved, like The Cars and Blondie. Years later in Burbank, Rex and I were teaching together at a sort of “School of Rock” type institution – I teach keys and vocals to this day – and all of the little kids were learning, like, “We Will Rock You” and kind of classic rock cliché stuff. One day, though, I heard the opening riff to “There She Goes” by The La's coming from one of the rehearsal rooms and I had to find out who was doing that one. It was striking chords in my soul. That was Rex. He'd brought in his 12-string so the kids could get the right sound. I thought, "Now, if this is what we're teaching the kids, we're gonna be okay." The jangly guitar resonated with me on such a deep level, and we ended up doing stuff like “Crash” by The Primitives, “Hero Takes a Fall” by The Bangles, and “Under the Milky Way” before the management kind of said, “Let's get back to doing 'TNT' over and over again.” Hahaha! But by then he was trying to get me onstage to sing “Call Me” with his grown-up band, so we moved on.

AW: How did the band form?

Rex: This is always a tough one, because... people who've known of us for a while know that there's a deep tragedy at the very root of the band that's just taken at face value as we've evolved, but for people who are new to us – and we're grateful to be discovered – there's no easy way to talk about it. Christina and I met as music teachers and discovered a lot of musical common ground and that weird thing where our very different voices blended really well. We were making demos basically for fun, and Christina's son Ian was a huge part of it. He was a spectacular musician and really getting into recording, and we basically volunteered ourselves as guinea pigs for him to hone that craft. It evolved into a live band with him as the drummer and his sister Larysa on viola. And then the night after our first gig as a band, he was killed in a car accident. The times that followed were every bit as awful as you would imagine and I can't say how we endured them at all. Christina will be better able to say how much we miss him and how much he still inspires us.

Christina: There was always, always music in the house when Ian was alive. He was always having friends over and jamming, on guitar and drums, and picking up his MIDI keyboard and doing remixes. We ended up bringing instruments to his funeral, because we knew how much it meant to him. He would have wanted people to pick up instruments and just start jamming. It was hard to know how to go on after we lost him. But I truly believe that if I'd given up on music, I don't think I'd be here today. I can honestly say he saved my life. I didn't want to go on without him, but he lived on in the music and still does.

AW: How did Big Stir get started?

Rex: Completely organically and by accident. Being in a place where music was almost literally saving our lives, we stumbled into a live scene that miraculously accepted us, and gratitude compelled us to try to give something back to that community. The LA booking world being the mercenary mess that it is, we first started crusading to find a place where we could book the bands we liked together, to find a proper home for the scene we wanted to see – having no idea how to do that. But we persevered, and the monthly concert series that we'd named “Big Stir” (Christina's idea) took off. As the bands coalesced around us, we started talking about records and how there should be a home for those, too, and Steven Wilson of Plasticsoul just kind of said, "Well, we have this thing called Big Stir, and people are responding to it; why wouldn't it be a label too?" And at the same time we had the opportunity to tour in the UK, and we took that same community-building zeal over there and started stitching the whole thing together on a global level. The bottom line is, it just happened and we kept chasing the beautiful things that materialized in front of us. There was no plan, and we couldn't have imagined it turning into what it has so quickly.

Christina: I always say it was a reaction to the fragmented nature of a typical LA club night. You'd pay your $10 to see your friends' band play for half an hour on a weeknight, and you wouldn't like the band before or after them, and it was profoundly dissatisfying. No care being taken to the night as a whole. We really thought there needed to be bills where the bands belonged together. Everyone dreams of being part of a scene, and we saw the elements of a scene. There was simply nobody bringing it all together. Honestly, the motivation was dignity. The bands deserved better. And so do the fans, and so do the venues. We managed to hold it together for a year, which is pretty difficult in LA – a lot of our friends had tried similar things – and then as a kind of a lark we decided to celebrate that by throwing together a CD compilation from the bands who'd been playing. I think that's how word got out beyond LA. It felt alive. A lot of people who had been on the pop scene for years regarded us with understandable skepticism at first, and it was mostly bands playing for the members of the other bands on the bill at first. But we knew we were doing it heart and soul, and trusted that would become clear eventually. And it did.

AW: I love your song titles and lyrics. Where do you get your ideas from?

Rex: It may be a cliché, but... dreams, snippets of conversation, evocative turns of phrase, that kind of thing, but only in the sense that they can be spun out into bigger ideas. If the idea sticks for a while, it's probably worth pursuing, and once that's in place the writing happens pretty quickly. For us there always needs to be at least some element of risk, something odd that makes us think, “Are we really going to do this? It's a little weird!” We'll chase those kinds of thing down when there are clearly “easier” kinds of songs to write.

Christina: For me it's stories. If a story resonates with me, or the imagery in the story, if it's actually an interesting tale and there's vivid imagery, and characters. I spent my college years studying acting, so I love to throw myself into other people's shoes to tell a story. I'll stow the stories away until they fit a song. There's a tune on the new album called “The Romantic Dream Appears Before Us.” The chorus is made up of jibberish English that Rex's daughters found in an ad for a purple backpack, and it's interesting and evocative, but that's all he had. The musical setting, though, sounded like rain to me. I reminded him of a story he'd told about driving a friend to the airport in a rainstorm, and it all fell into place. “Playing with the Lights,” the song we wrote for Ian after he died, that's all put together out of images, things that happened when he was alive and afterward that made us feel he was still with us. It was important that it wasn't just a lament, but more of a legacy of his vivacious spirit.

AW: Who writes the lyrics and who writes the music, or is it a collaboration?

Rex: We started with a whole bunch of tunes I'd been sitting on for a long time, and Christina's unerring sense of which ones worked for us. The ones that did set the template for what kinds of things we would write together knowing how the band worked. There's a special magic that comes from two voices starting off almost every song together, where all bets as to the identity or gender or personality of the narrator are off. It's incredibly freeing and I'm more than content to explore that from here on out. I don't ever need to write another song that comes off as “my” perspective or what “I” think. An ambiguous, androgynous “we” is a much more open idiom and I can't imagine ever tiring of it. It's really the coolest thing ever and it's Christina who makes it sing.

Christina: I really responded to the songs in this massive tome that Rex handed me early on, because they were clever and quirky and already laden with imagery that really got me. It was smart, worldly, and empathetic, not “me me me.” That was the seed, but they all changed as we grew into a band. And it wasn't just the songs that changed, but the direction of the writing, too, as we started to understand what was unique about the band as its own instrument. One thing we have going for us is that no matter what we do, it sounds like us. So we can start with a pretty radical departure of an idea and it all comes home because of the signature sounds that are always there. We can say “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me?” is our “Motown” song or “Drama Sue” came from trying to do The Buzzcocks, but that's not how they play out, and that's a good thing.

AW: Your music to me leans folk/rock. Do you like that style of music?

Rex: I think that term means different things to different people. "Folk rock” as the electric beast invented by The Byrds is the bedrock, for sure, but when we're recording, it takes Steven Wilson really leaning on me before I'll relent to putting an acoustic guitar on there! The male/female harmony thing is certainly a lot more common in rootsier material, but then there's X, there's a lot of shoegaze bands that do that, and we draw from all of that. You get a lot of duos in modern Americana where they run the risk of seeming overly earnest or serious. I'm from West Virginia. I know from murder ballads and laments on a deep genetic level, but I don't think that's us. We find humor pretty essential, and while we're not Pantera or even a louder kind of melodic punk/pop band like Hüsker Dü, we want to rock more often than not, in our quirky way.

Christina: Well... would you consider Fleetwood Mac folk/rock? We used to kind of say, for the less deeply music-geeky people who asked “What kind of stuff do you play?” that it was basically like Fleetwood Mac and R.E.M. … umm... met in an elevator on one fateful night, and spawned a child? I'd always thought of folk/rock as a duo standing onstage with acoustic guitars doing protest songs over some relatively chill drums. And there's nothing wrong with that. Certainly, jangly guitars and co-ed vocals fit the definition, and having strings on each song might, as well, but as far as we know the only other band to have a regular violist was The Velvet Underground, and we might even be a bit more like them than The Beau Brummels!

AW: The album seems to be a panorama of people and places. Are these real people and, besides England, real places?

Rex: Place names and proper names just add so much texture, and we're of the mind that details and stories actually make songs more universal, not less. So we do that a lot. Christina will probably be better at picking out good examples. Drama Sue is real and she really does go by that name, I can say that! “Appalachukrainia” has a pretty extensive roll call of our friends and fellow travelers on the pop scene, but it's a very selective and whimsical travelogue. Other times the process of the song unfolding tells you when to tweak the literal truth to make it what it wants to be. “McCadden” started off as being a dialogue between myself and my daughter Ridley when she was in first grade, and I was deep in a custody battle, trying to figure out how best to be a single dad, to connect with her while setting that aside. But over and over again the phrases that came up dictated that the narrator wasn't me at all, but a completely different kind of guy, a deeply invested mathematician, in fact, who just happened to have my same circumstances and a very similar child to mine. And then we arranged it so that Christina and I trade off lead vocals, and it could be a mother, or a father, or two sides of the story. That made it a lot richer, and both characters (or all three) took on more depth, and the language became a lot more consonant somehow. You feel the love and the conflict, but it doesn't come off as self-involved axe-grinding, hopefully.

Christina: Obviously “Appalachukrainia” is not a real place, it's the intersection of our individual origins (I'm a first generation Ukrainian American and Rex is from West Virginia), and most of the stuff in that song is true. But it's very much a mix of real and not-real and hybrids of the two. “Fort Ashby” is a real place. Carl Crew is a real guy, although the song isn't about him in the least. “Suddenly Succulents” is a good example. I'm singing as a guy writing a letter to his wife in 1886.  He's slowly losing his mind trying to farm Garbanzo beans in what's now Los Angeles, trying to make enough money to bring her out west, and drinking too much home-made tequila. But time is kind of warping around him and he's getting vaguely psychedelic visions of the future, which include Rex's daughter in the same physical space more than a century later, consulting her cell phone about how to care for potted cacti. None of which you could literally glean from the lyrics, but these backstories are important to us. You're getting one chapter of a bigger story – just the good bits – and the details you fill in are up to you.

AW: I love Steven Wilson’s production. How did he approach the album sound-wise?

Rex: It's amazing. Can you believe this is the first record he's produced for anyone other than his own band, Plasticsoul? And we're a very different band! But he knows our sound really well. We've played together many times, and subbed in each other's bands, and talk music constantly, and he knew that we wanted something that the first Armoires record, which was recorded all over the place by different people, with different versions of the band, in a haze of grief, and really lacked: a consistent aesthetic. We had our drummer Derek for the whole of the sessions, which really helped, and Steven ran with it, doing the whole record and the Side Three EP, as well. We were still tracking while he mixed, and what he was doing made us better at our side of it. Hearing the way he was treating the viola and 12-string together made us think, "Okay, let's do that more, better, smarter," and we did. We honed our thing in response to the way he was shaping us and what we got, despite the many, many wonderful guest artists doing their individual things, was a very solid distillation of what works about the band.

And best of all, it was playful. He would be like, “I made this section sound like Rush, because I know you hate Rush,” and we'd be like, “Awesome.” “I put this French chick's dialogue over the bridge here, because it seemed weird and mysterious like the song.” “Rad.” “How about I make these drums sound like Lee Scratch Perry mixed them?” “Definitely.” On the first record we had a lot of producers who were great, but none of it was fun. We were recording through a lot of pain and our heads were elsewhere, and we picked the wrong guy to do the tail end of it. He made us absolutely miserable and left us with versions of a few of our tunes that show the strain and are hard for us to hear. Steven's approach let us re-learn that we could be loose and loopy with the recording process, and we think that comes through.

Christina: Steven had an impossible task with what we gave him. There was everything we as the core band recorded here in Burbank, plus all of the contributions from our guests pouring in from all over the world. What impressed me was that, when he felt like something wasn't quite right, it would really eat away at him until it was, and he would do extensive research on the best way to handle it. Viola is a weird instrument to record. We had theremin and accordion and pedal steel, and there were all these super-stacked vocals that were a real challenge to untangle, and he'd go figure out how to do it. He really wanted it to be the best it could possibly be. It was as important to him as if it were his own record. He really is a brilliant producer. If we didn't really need him to get on to the next Plasticsoul, we'd never stop sending work his way.

Andrea Weiss

The A's Album Review

The Armoires
Big Stir Records

Coming on the heel of the delightful EP Third Side, which featured a great cover of The New Pornographers' “The Laws Have Changed,” comes the Armoires' second full length album, Zibaldone.

Musically it’s a sprawling mix of influences, including The New Pornographers and Game Theory. The way it holds together for me, in tone and form, just snatches of music and lyrics reminds me of The Nields. Lyrically everyone from Michael Stipe to Bonnie Raitt is name-checked, in really fun and interesting ways, Raitt in particular, as she’s mentioned on “When We Were In England (And You Were Dead).”

Even when wry, for instance “(How Did You Make) A Mistake Like Me,” the gentle positivity is also worthy of the Nields. These two sentiments run throughout the album. Combine that with music that is off-kilter in all the best ways, and you have an album that is a whole world. And what a world it is! This is an album to sink into and get lost in. It’s that much fun, and well worth the time spent traveling in it.

Andrea Weiss

Monday, August 5, 2019


The New Pornographers
Falling Down the Steps of Your Smile
Collected Works/Concord

The first single from TNP’s upcoming album In the Morse Code of Brake Lights is a natural progression from their last album, Whiteout Conditions, but whereas the initial single from that album, “High Ticket Attractions,” came blasting out of the box, "Falling" both flows and marches out of it in a very pleasing way. It still rocks, much the way “Another Drug Deal of the Heart” did on Brill Bruisers. The song seems to be a slap at image mongering. All in all, it's a great single that makes me intensely curious to hear the album.
Andrea Weiss


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