10FriJuly 10, 2015
As he gathered the bed sheets covered with effluvia to throw out the window, the 24-hour television set broadcast that voice. He turned and saw this dame for the first time and recognized the cry of a street angel whose epic vocal power contained human history, the strength of iron and steel, and the vulnerability of someone insisting on freedom when she knows damn well she might not get it.
He dropped the crumpled sheets short of their eleven-story descent and sat at the edge of the bed to watch the tube. There she was -- someone named Johnette Napolitano from some L.A. band called Concrete Blonde. She was beautiful and whip smart and had confidence and poise and wit. Again, there was that voice. "Mmmph. Hope for rock 'n' roll after all," he said out loud, knowing full well he was talking about his own sorry ass.
Twenty-seven years later Johnette Napolitano is talking to the rock critic on the phone from her home in Joshua Tree, California. He wants to know about that voice. "When I was in junior high school and started goin' to parties, I wasn't the most socially graceful creature at all. So I'd take my guitar around and the one thing I know is that whenever I'd start singing, everyone would shut up and listen."
Shut up and listen. Shut up and listen. And so they did.
Concrete Blonde came howling out the chute in that year of our Ronnie Ray-Gun 1986 and knocked out three classic albums by 1990: Concrete Blonde, Free and Bloodletting. The latter begat the hit single "Joey" -- a sobbing love song to a dying alcoholic -- perfect rock balladry. Napolitano was born in Hollywood -- the belly of the beast -- and her songs were (and remain) cinematic -- feature films compressed into three-minute rock 'n' roll: "Still In Hollywood," "God Is A Bullet," "True." Walking In London, Mexican Moon, and a collabo with Chicano punk-rockers Los Illegals followed. "Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man" and "Heal It Up" -- among others -- hail from that period. She is also one of the great song interpreters of our time, as proven by the way she turned James Brown's "It's A Man's World" and Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" into Johnette songs.
In between recording she toured the planet. "Gigging was always just as much about traveling," she explains. "Like my godmother told me when I was 9 years old 'you must travel, you must go to Europe, you must see these places.' I never forgot that -- this was my way out and into the world." She worked on side projects -- Pretty & Twisted, The Heads with Talking Heads vets, and a legendary, much-bootlegged '90s solo album that went officially unreleased because of record racket shenanigans. Just as importantly, the girl who'd dreamed of an unaffordable art school when she was a child became the woman who pursued all of her dreams. She's been an artist and art gallery owner, conducted psychic readings, keeps horses, studied pottery with a master in Mexico as well as flamenco dance and song in Spain and is now a practicing tattooist. "I'm licensed to ill, baby!" she proudly exclaims in her delicious, throaty laugh. Her Joshua Tree Tattoo business focuses on "nature-based design." After moving from L.A. a dozen years ago, she's incorporated the desert aesthetic like she used to use Hollywood as a muse. "I absorb my surroundings," she explains.
The 21st Century brought the gorgeous, solo Scarred, various Concrete Blonde reunions and her book Rough Mix -- a collection of short stories, lyrics and drawings. She's now touring on her own -- just an acoustic guitar and her songs, passages read from Rough Mix against projected backdrops of original and found art -- and that voice.
"I get a little impatient with people my age because they're always talkin' about the old days bein' so much fun and I'm thinkin' 'well why don't they just dig themselves a hole now?' This is the time to really fuckin' bring it. I've been doin' it long enough that I oughta know what I'm doin'. Insecurities that used to plague me aren't there cuz I'm too tired for 'em. It gives me the freedom of not giving a fuck. I've been having the best time of my life and I've never seen an audience have a better time." She pauses and then adds for emphasis: "I'm looking forward."
The rock critic whose faith in rock 'n' roll was restored all those years ago by Johnette Napolitano laughs. His only advice is shut up and listen.
----- Michael Simmons
11SatJuly 11, 2015
Defiantly unorthodox, but often playfully so, Modern Art is a stealth album, embedded with half-hidden hooks lurking in its recesses, just out of focus, waiting to be discovered. Nope, this is not a one-listen album, but a progressive deepening has always characterizes the most memorable longplayers, whose authors rarely put all their cards on the table right away. Not that there aren't some instant grabbers here: "She Walks the Night" captures the Byrds of "Eight Miles High," while "Ladyfingers" stomps along with the authority of T.Rex, and the tortured "My Ass Is Grass" could serve as the belated follow-up to "Sick of Myself," the hit single from Sweet's 1995 LP 100% Fun. At the other extreme are provocative, soul-deep, virtually unprecedented tracks like "Oh, Oldendaze!," "Late Nights With the Power Pop," "Modern Art," "Evil by Design, Goodbye Nature," "At the Screen (With the World Flowing In)" and "Nowhere."
For this record, Sweet discarded his normal process of laying down ideas as they came to him and shaping them into songs. Instead, he allowed those spontaneous kernels of music dictate the direction of each piece. Rather than bringing his left brain into the process, he put his right brain in charge and simply let it rip.
"In the past, I'd make deliberate changes of structure and normalize things," says Sweet. "But this time, I wanted to make it abstract but still human and natural. I had a lot of tapes of me coming up with ideas for songs, but I hadn't fleshed them out--just raw melodies, stream-of-consciousness lyrics or me humming along, that sort of thing. So with the first song, which became 'Oh, Oldendaze,' I took the exact structure of me making up the song--I'd do something for a while, and then I'd go to some other section of chords--and I decided have that preordain the structure, keeping that original raw idea exactly the way it was. That approach gave it a super-personal feel that was really melodic and musical but still different, so I ran with it. And in an odd way, this record feels more like me than anything I've done."
Still evident through this musical and sonic shell game are echoes of Sweet's touchstones: the Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys and Big Star. "Although I really didn't think about other music while making the record, if those things are there, it's just because I love them," he says. "And even the long songs with all that weirdness in them tend to have recognizable parts." Indeed, these exploratory songs exemplify the very quality Sweet finds in his treasured Big Star albums. "When I discovered Big Star at the end of high school, it was the greatest thing ever, and Alex Chilton became one of my heroes," he recalls. "What I loved about Alex's thing was that it was pure emotion--you experienced his feelings through the music. And that's the kind of music I love: when an artist seems like they're really feeling something."
Sweet made the record with just two other musicians. As usual, Velvet Crush founder Ric Menck does all the drumming (except for "Ivory Tower," which is built on a random drum pattern supplied by Matthew's friend Fred Armison, an SNL cast member best known for his Obama impressions). Dennis Taylor's deft and urgent guitar lines serve as a running commentary to Sweet's introspective singing, playing a similar role to those of Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd on Girlfriend. Matthew discovered his new secret weapon working as a guitar tech for his friends the Bangles, and couldn't believe his good fortune. "Dennis was exactly what I'd been looking for," he says.
As for the title, Sweet explains, "I first wrote down the phrase 'modern art' as a possible song title, and it struck a chord with me because of its similarity to 'modern heart'--like a stare-down between the strange newness of time and the living and feeling-filled but surely doomed heart."
Near the end of the recording, Matthew's wife Lisa discovered a quote from Picasso that she felt spoke to the purity of the process that had led to Modern Art: "If only we could pull out our brain and use only our eyes." Says Matthew, "I love the idea of getting rid of intent and just seeing what happens; finding your world in there."
The album's inventiveness extends to its final stages, which went down at Glenn Schick Mastering in Atlanta. The mastering was done with Schick's unique "triple analog" process: After going through a special chain of analog gear not once but twice, all the masters were then cut to virgin lacquer, and then transferred back to digital. The result is a remarkably immediate and full-bodied listening experience. "It's not too loud, because we wanted to allow the dynamics to breathe," Schick explains.
Never has an album's title more accurately described its content. It's fitting that Modern Art will appear on the 20th anniversary of Girlfriend.
12SunJuly 12, 2015Whitey Morgan
The history of country music has no shortage of characters hit by hard luck: the hard-working man who can't seem to make ends meet, the heart-of-gold drunk who just can't seem to put down the bottle, the woman who wants to do right but ends up, time and again, doing wrong. No matter the tragedies at the center of the songs, in most cases those characters come off like just that -- characters; inventions of either a particularly gifted songwriter looking to spin a tall tale or a lazy one looking to pad out an album. But in the case of Whitey Morgan, those characters -- the drinker, the troublemaker, the struggling, hard-working man -- all seem arrestingly real.
That's largely because the stories on Sonic Ranch -- a big, nasty, whiskey-slugging, bare-knuckle bruiser of a country record -- are pulled from Morgan's own back pages.
A native of the economically depressed city of Flint, Michigan, Morgan practically bleeds straight into each of the album's 10 songs, making for a kind of rough-and-tumble honky-tonk noir record that can pack the dance floor while doing Bukowski proud. Morgan opens the record at a loss -- "I gave up on Jesus/ When momma gave up on me/ So much for the family life/ It's just me and the whiskey," he growls in the album's opening moments -- and spends the rest of it fighting to keep the rest from being wrenched away, bottle by his side, fists clenched. "If I'm going down tonight," he defiantly sings, "I'm going down drinkin'."
Credit most of the album's fighting spirit to Morgan's childhood in Flint. A teenager who, in his own words, "got my ass kicked on a daily basis," Morgan witnessed the toll the city's troubled economy took on the people closest to him. "I experienced Flint through my parents and relatives," he explains. "A lot of them lost jobs at General Motors, and I saw a lot of factories close and get torn down." Despite the turmoil, Morgan's family was close. "We never dwelled on the negative. My mom always had dinner on the table and my dad worked everyday for GM to make sure there was always food. They never let on that things were getting bad, ever. Growing up in Flint ignited the 'never give up' attitude I apply to every part of my life. That's what you learn when you grow up in that town. You also learn that you don't take shit from anyone, ever."
Morgan's certainly not taking any shit on 'Sonic Ranch.' On the grizzled, smoky cover of Waylon Jennings' "Goin' Down Rocking," he digs his heels in against anyone who would dare try to steamroll him. On "Low Down on the Backstreets," over staggering piano and glistening apostrophes of pedal steel, he's pushing back against a broken heart with country songs and dancing girls. And on the harrowing cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Waitin' 'Round to Die," he's staring down mortality with his jaw set and his eyes narrowed. "I have loved that song since the first time I heard it," Morgan says. "It's a dark masterpiece that looks in on a not-so-perfect, but not uncommon, life story. I did my best to put my own heart, soul and experiences into my version. I had a vision of making it sound as if it could be the score for the next Sergio Leone classic." Morgan achieved his vision; with its ominous, shadowy guitars and spectral lap steel, the song serves as the album's grim, potent centerpiece.
Even in its lighter moments -- the holler-along revelry of "Ain't Gonna Take It Anymore"; the tender 'Good Timin' Man," which tackles the pressures of love and persona -- Sonic Ranch embraces the grit while maintaining a determinedly unvarnished sound. Much of that has to do with the relaxed atmosphere in the studio that gives the record its name. "My manager told me about this place he had been to outside of El Paso called Sonic Ranch," Morgan says. "That was a real departure from the usual studio vibe. My manager knows how much I do not like the 'studio' thing -- I never feel comfortable. This was exactly what I needed: a laid-back place with great gear where we could make a great record."
More than just the physical environment, though, Morgan also needed a producer he could trust. "We needed someone that could get the big bad sound we wanted, that wouldn't slick it up Nashville style. We also needed someone that would push me to my limits and not let me settle. We found that guy when we found Ryan Hewitt." Together Hewitt, Morgan and his band crafted a record as big on heart as it is on attitude. It's a record about loss and pain, but also about picking yourself up and pressing on, fighting to get what you want, and then to hold on to it for dear life.
"The goal for me on this album was to keep moving forward musically, and try to give the fans my best album yet," Morgan says. "I don't really look at the big picture, I just always try and outdo myself." On Sonic Ranch, he's done exactly that.
14TueJuly 14, 2015Empires
Van Vleet put pen to paper and began to write in a wholly free space, with no expectations or endgame in mind. He explored a musical language that was quite literally out of character, imagining his songs performed not by Empires but by some indeterminate modern pop thrush.
"It was really freeing," Van Vleet says, "just trying to put myself in somebody else's shoes, another artist's voice. I stopped overthinking what I was trying to say and started saying it much more clearly."
Van Vleet also immersed himself in classic post punk and indie rock 'n' roll circa 1989-1991, his mind's eye reeling as he delved into the canons of such sonic adventurers as My Bloody Valentine, Wire, and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Songs like "Orphan" and "Shadowfaux" emerged as Van Vleet accessed previously untapped springs of melody, lyric, and meaning. He eventually played his demo recordings to his fellow band members, who surprised him by validating his efforts, demanding Empires tackle this divergent new material themselves.
"I was just showing them to Max," Van Vleet says. "I had no idea it was something he'd be into. In my mind, it was this extreme pop but the songs really resonated with the band, which for some reason, I didn't expect to happen."
While prior Empires recordings had been produced, engineered, and mixed by Steger, the band agreed the time had come to see what an outside influence might bring to the table and in September 2013, traveled to Dallas for three weeks of sessions with producer John Congleton. Known with his work with such dissimilar artists as St. Vincent, The War On Drugs, Cloud Nothings, and The Black Angels, Congleton proved the ideal midwife for Empires' aesthetic rebirth, assisting them as they shed deeply rooted means of expression.
"John took ideas that we thought were golden and threw them away," Van Vleet says. "He said, 'You need to let the song be what it is and you need to live with it.' And that's what we did. He taught us not to hide our songs, to let it all shine through."
Stripping Empires' already expansive sound to its essence exposed far more range and emotional heft to songs like "Lifers" and the cutting "Hostage" -- the guitars sound richer and atmospheric, the rhythms subtle and fluid yet more powerful at the same time. Throughout the album, Van Vleet's raw croon rises to match the band's musicality, conveying anxieties, secrets, and a heartfelt longing for transcendence.
ORPHAN serves a forward-thinking landmark as Empires continue to grow and venture towards unprecedented terrain.
"Now we're going to go deeper into this new direction, see how we evolve within it. We're just scratching the surface on who we are."
16ThuJuly 16, 2015
Larry and Teresa's story begins at New York's famed Bottom Line club in the mid 80s; she was singing country, he was playing pedal steel. It was love at first chord. "She was the real deal," native New Yorker Larry says. "None of that Urban Cowboy nonsense. And she was clock-stopping gorgeous. I was smitten." "I'd thought country music players in New York was an oxymoron," says Tennessee-born Teresa. "But he saved my life on that stage. I thanked him for bringing the heavy steel down to play just a few songs, and when we looked into each other's eyes I saw everything he is, the depth of his soul." They married soon after, setting off on their own individual highways, but always circling back to each other. Among other adventures, Teresa originated the role of country music pioneer Sara Carter in the musical Keep On the Sunny Side, and Larry achieved renown as the go-to roots music guy for sessions, tours, and pit bands, the dude who'd mastered a dizzying array of stringed instruments and styles.
The seeds for a duet project were unwittingly planted in their courting days, when Larry and Teresa sang and played with the locals under her great-great grandmother's Tennessee cedar tree, the same one under which they married. (These gatherings continue to this day.) Later, when the duo was song-swapping all night with the band in the back of Bob Dylan's tour bus, Dylan's longtime manager Jeff Kramer told Larry he was crazy not to make hay with what they had as a duo. But their schedules kept the idea on the back burner until 2005, when Levon Helm called. He'd beaten cancer, was invigorated as never before, and was putting together a band for the soon-to-be legendary Midnight Rambles at his barn-studio in Woodstock, NY. He wanted some Campbell-Williams mojo to help make the most of his surprise fourth act. This humble beginning -- playing in a barn on a dirt road -- inaugurated the greatest musical experience of Larry and Teresa's lives.
Larry became the unflappable leader of the shape-shifting Midnight Ramble Band, earning three Grammys for producing Levon's final three CDs; Teresa, as an indispensable band member, frequently brought the house down. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams is an extension of that time, featuring eight originals and three covers honed on the carpet of Levon's barn, under the gaze of grateful fans. Songs like the Muscle Shoals-inflected CD opener "Surrender to Love," heart-wrenching ballad "Another One More Time," and boot-stomper "Bad Luck Charm," feature the distinctive texture of two entwining voices who've been through a lot together -- the good, the bad, and the joyous.
"It was the most pure musical experience I've ever had," Larry says of their time with Levon. "It gave me the template for how to make music for the rest of my life: no egos, no agenda, no petty stuff. I looked forward to every gig I ever did with Levon, I loved doing it, and when it was over I couldn't wait for the next one. I got inspired to write more songs for Teresa and me to sing."
For Teresa, singing in the church-like space at the Midnight Rambles was full circle for her childhood discovery of the magic between an audience and an artist. "I don't remember a time not singing in front of people. I sang in church, at school, everywhere. I didn't know anything about making records. I just knew connection to an audience was everything. While standing onstage Saturday nights at Levon's -- musically true north -- in that intimate space, I realized: this was my dream, and I'm in it."
When performing at Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, Teresa took on Reverend Gary Davis' "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," infusing the apocalyptic gospel tune with show-stopping, pew-jumping fervor. Her roots as a seventh-generation Mississippi Delta cotton-farm girl rose to the surface.
The song became part of the Midnight Ramble repertoire, and captured on Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, it's a powerful force indeed.
After Levon's 2012 passing, they grieved, celebrated his life, and got to work finishing Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. They had the tunes, and, with drummer (and ace recording engineer) Justin Guip and Ramble Band member Byron Isaacs on bass, they had an ass-kicking, road-worthy band. Additionally, the lovefest of guests on Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams sweetened the pot considerably: Amy Helm's voice melding with Larry and Teresa's on the gorgeous Grateful Dead hymn "Attics Of My Life," Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne's rollicking touch on several tracks, and Levon himself appearing on "You're Running Wild," a tune made famous by the Louvin Brothers, now given an Orbison touch (originally recorded during Levon's Dirt Farmer sessions). Finally, it all dovetailed into place.
With Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, this duo not only brings a lot to the table, they bring the table itself -- plus the house, the still, the church, the marriage bed, the sawdust-covered floor, and abiding, unconditional love, all carried in two voices harmonizing across hills, hollers, porches, and fire escapes. Those close harmonies ride atop music made in a mountain refuge, far from the madding crowd, connected to a spirit that lives on in song.
17FriJuly 17, 2015
18SatJuly 18, 2015
In the 1990s, he recorded and toured with Lowen in the acclaimed acoustic duo Lowen & Navarro until Eric's retirement in 2009. Dan has since transitioned smoothly into a growing solo career, increasingly in demand on the national concert circuit...
He's moonlighted as a session singer and voice actor for 27 years, in major motion pictures like The Book Of Life (as the villain "Chakal"), The Lorax, Happy Feet (1 & 2), Rio (on the Oscar-nominated "Real In Rio"), Ice Age (2 & 3), and a dozen more; TV series Turbo Fast, Prison Break, Family Guy and American Dad; recordings with Neil Young, Andrea Bocelli, Luis Miguel, Jose Feliciano, Susanna Hoffs and Jon Anderson of Yes; and hundreds of commercials for Subaru, Shakey's Pizza, McDonald's, Toyota, Coca-Cola, Honda, El Pollo Loco, Nationwide and more...
He has contributed countless hours in Washington on issues of intellectual property, copyright and performer's rights, including testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Copyright Royalty Board on behalf of the Nashville Songwriters Assn Int'l, the former AFTRA, NARAS, BMI , SoundExchange and the musicFIRST Coalition...
Dan also serves on the boards of SAG-AFTRA, Folk Alliance, The Levitt Pavilions LA and the Golden West Chapter of the ALS Association, fighting the neuromuscular disease better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, which tragically took Eric Lowen's life in 2012...
In 2009, after 22 years and 12 albums with Lowen & Navarro, Dan released the spirited "Live at McCabe's", backed by his pals, Austin's now-disbanded Stonehoney. He is currently finishing his next album , "Shed My Skin" -- his first studio album of new material as a solo artist -- is slated for release later this year.
He is the father of a 18-year-old son and a known abuser of acoustic guitars.
24FriJuly 24, 20158:00pm $8.00The Zach Pietrini express barrels through towns on rails laid by Waylon Jennings & Ryan Adams. He is spurred by stories, steam, & whiskey. His freight bespeaks barroom-stomping Midwestern Salt-Of-The-Earth Americana.
Nominated for 2014 Best Band in Milwaukee (88Nine), Zach Pietrini's tumultuous songwriting journey began in 2006 in Chicago when he penned his first song on a Paste Magazine subscription insert. This song started a project that has spanned 9 years, 4 albums, 3 states, multiple band members, countless stages, hopes, and heartache. After moving to Nashville to record his third album "Death And His Many Faces" in 2010, Zach moved up to Wisconsin and thought his music career was over.
But he was just getting started.
Zach rounded up some friends, and fired up the groove machine once more. Zach and the band played Summerfest, branched out from Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago to debut in the Twin Cities, Michigan, and Ohio markets, and won the Wisconsin Singer/Songwriter Award for their song "Divided Highway."
The band charges on with its newest release Highways and Heartache set for release in late spring of 2015. Their sound consistently evolves, but doesn't stray from its roots of brutally honest and impassioned tavern tunes. Fans describe the songs as "haunting," "honest" and "instantly familiar." The band continues to write, tour, and record their salt-of-the-earth-flavored americana, and were recently featured on NoiseTrade's New and Notable. They are, as ever, driven by their desire to connect with people through the simple beauty of story and song.
Like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, sign up for their monthly emails (and get a free song!), join them any way you can. They would love to connect with you.
25SatJuly 25, 2015
Despite being less than a five-hour drive from city to city, musically, these two regions couldn't be further apart from one another. In the late '70s and '80s a harder-edged style of rock music emerged from the Bay area, while Bakersfield is renowned for its own iconic twangy country music popularized, most famously, by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the '60s and '70s. Yet despite these differences, they are both elements that Cracker's two cofounders, David Lowery and Johnny Hickman, have embraced to some degree on nearly every one of their studio albums over the last two decades. On Berkeley To Bakersfield, however, instead of integrating these two genres together within one disc, they've neatly compartmentalized them onto their own respective regionally-titled LPs.
As Lowery explains, "On the Berkeley disc the band is the original Cracker lineup -- Davey Faragher, Michael Urbano, Johnny and myself. This is the first time this lineup has recorded together in almost 20 years. We began recording this album at East Bay Recorders in Berkeley, CA. For this reason we chose to stylistically focus this disc on the music we most associate with the East Bay: Punk and Garage with some funky undertones. To further match our sense of place we often took an overtly political tone in the lyrics."
"This Bakersfield disc represents the 'California country' side of the band. Throughout the band's 24-year history we've dabbled in Country and Americana but this time we wanted to pay homage to the particular strain of Country and Country-Rock music that emerges from the inland valleys of California."
Cracker has been described as a lot of things over the years: alt-rock, Americana, insurgent-country, and have even had the terms punk and classic-rock thrown at them. But more than anything Cracker are survivors. Cofounders Lowery and Hickman have been at it for almost a quarter of a century -- amassing ten studio albums, multiple gold records, thousands of live performances, hit songs that are still in current radio rotation around the globe ("Low," "Euro-Trash Girl," "Get Off This" and "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me" to name just a few), and a worldwide fan base -- that despite the major sea-changes within the music industry -- continues to grow each year.
28TueJuly 28, 2015
Touring the world with her two young children in tow, Mandell has always tried to work educational and entertaining stops into her routing: national parks, museums, trains, waterslides. So during a tour stop in Nashville last winter, she brought the kids to the CMHOF to learn about some of her heroes like Hank Williams, George Jones, Buck Owens, and Tammy Wynette. Instead, she learned something about herself.
"It was a profound experience for me," says Mandell, who's earned raves everywhere from The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly to SPIN and the Associated Press for an eclectic catalog that spans nearly two decades and evokes everything from Tom Waits and X to Chan Marshall and Patsy Kline. "Seeing all their lyrics and guitars on display made me reflect on just how deeply I'd been influenced by classic country."
Mandell's kids fell in love with Roger Miller and refused to let her take his music out of the car's CD player for the rest of the year.
"I was really struck by how simple his production was, and how central his voice and how open the sound on the record was," Mandell remembers. "It was really organic. There aren't a lot of layers, and the melody and his voice and the words--whether they're some of the sillier songs or more poignant ones--I thought they were more beautiful for it. It made me want to de-clutter and strip away and make something simple that still sounded full and beautiful."
So that's exactly what Mandell did. Co-producing the new album herself with longtime friend and collaborator Sheldon Gomberg in his Silver Lake studio, Mandell distilled her songs down to their purest cores, assembling all of the musicians together in a single room with only acoustic instruments to cut the record live in just four days.
"I like working quickly," explains Mandell, "so I decided to do it this way, which is probably how Roger Miller recorded, too. They tended to work quickly and not be too precious in those days. It was so fun and fresh and different."
The result is an utterly charming, beguiling album, drawing on elements of folk, jazz, and standards with an infectious charisma, as Mandell's voice melts over the stripped-down arrangements to create a lush, sensuous intimacy. It all kicks off with the wry humor of "I'm Old Fashioned," which showcases Mandell's trademark blend of sharp wit and heartfelt sincerity, while at the same time giving a nod to the throwback approach she and her band took in the studio.
"I wrote this after the first Sunday that I had the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times delivered to my door for the first time in years," she remembers. "I was so excited to start reading the newspaper the old fashioned way; to hold it in my hands; to have my kids see me reading it the way I used to see my parents read it on Sunday mornings. I'm trying to get away from looking at screens in our home, and it made me think about all the things that might be silly but I still like to do, like walking into the post office or the bank when there are more convenient ways to go through life. I'm not perfect in this regard, but I'm doing what I can to get back to a simpler way of life."
The simple things hold the most tantalizing appeal in Mandell's music, and moments of transcendence can be found in the most mundane and unexpected places. In "China Garden Buffet," she recounts a head-spinning kiss after an unremarkable dinner at the eponymous restaurant, while "Magic Pair of Shoes" imagines a world of success and riches that's just one set of stilettos away, and "What Love Can Do" tells the story of a dark time in her life unwittingly brightened by a passing stranger.
"Years ago I was trying to immerse myself in the French language by spending time in Paris by myself," she remembers. "It was one of the most difficult things I've ever done and I was completely miserable (yet, I would do it again). On my last night there I was walking to meet friends and was standing at the corner waiting for the light to change. At that moment, a man on a bicycle pulled up. Our eyes met. I shivered. His light turned green and he rode away. I was watching him and he turned to look back at me and we smiled. It was my first truly happy moment in Paris. I love those times in life where for a millisecond you feel love, even in a passing way."
While romantic desire may be a fleeting notion in Mandell's songs, she finds a much more permanent love in her relationship with her twins, who proved to be a fount of inspiration for her 2014 album Let's Fly A Kite. The LA Times called that release "a lovely record about the heart, children, commitment, joy and other Saturday afternoon-style pleasures," raving that Mandell was "at her lyrically precise best." Writing with her children in mind once again brings out Mandell's poetic and playful side on Dark Lights Up, as she paints a vivid family portrait in "Butter Blonde and Chocolate Brown."
"I used to tell my daughter that her hair was the color of toast with butter melted in it because she had been a yellowish blonde but her hair was turning to brown," Mandell says of the track's inspiration. "I have no idea what color eyes she has, so I tell her they're 'ocean colored,' sometimes green, sometimes blue and sometimes gray. My son is such a boy, always taking things apart and asking how they work."
That Dark Lights Up is her tenth solo album is a milestone not lost on Mandell. Looking back on the arc of her remarkable career--which began with 1999's Wishbone, recorded with Jon Brion and Ethan Johns--Mandel describes her evolution as one of finding her true self as both an artist and a woman.
"I like what I'm doing now because I'm so much more comfortable in my own skin, with my own way of writing," she says. "I fully enjoy every aspect of being a musician, from when you feel really good about something you write alone in your living room to playing it with other people to performing it onstage. All of it is so fun and such a joy and an incredible way to connect with other humans and understand yourself better."
One need only press play on Dark Lights Up to understand exactly what Mandell means. It's the sound of a smile from a passing stranger in a lonely city, of an unexpected first kiss after a dinner at a Chinese restaurant, of an idyllic afternoon strolling through country music history. Dark Lights Up is an ode to simplicity, a welcome reminder of the rewards that await those who travel through life with open eyes and an open heart.
Courtney Marie Andrews is an American singer/songwriter. Originally from the Valley of the Sun, in Arizona, she caught the traveler's bug and packed up her van and headed North to Seattle, where she currently resides. No matter where she calls home, she is truly a child of the open road. From greyhound buses across the US, to motorbikes in Indonesia, to trains across Europe, Courtney is a storyteller at heart, and her colorful life is often reflected in the words she sings. She believes art is truly a reflection of life. Her songs are timeless modern classics. The characters in her songs are relatable and real. Courtney sings with feeling, from somewhere deep within. Some might call her roots country, but really she’s just full of the sounds of America. A bit Appalachian, a bit Rocky Mountain, and a bit of her own thing, Courtney Marie Andrews has the rambler’s range and the troubadour’s sincerity. Her guitar work and softly-applied melodies will remind listeners of bygone eras in American music, bringing back floods of emotions.