Mark Shikuma / Friday, Aug. 23 @ 3:15 p.m. / Music
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, documentary, co-directed by Drew Denicola and Olivia Mori, co-produced by Danielle McCarthy and Olivia Mori, written by Drew Denicola (Magnolia Pictures)
It’s a blessing and a curse. The yin-and-yang phrase looms over much of Memphis’ musical history. The great triumphs of Sun, Stax and Hi studios (and their eventual demise) often overshadowed the vast array of unsung Memphis musicians and bands. The story of the ‘70s rock-pop band Big Star and its studio and breeding ground, Ardent Studios (and its subsequent independent label), are often used as a prime example of how an above-the-ceiling type of creativity, youth and ambition synchronized, while simultaneously business and distribution unraveled, leaving a series of albums that would unexpectedly endure and influence the next several generations of fans, especially among musicians and writers, a decade later.
A number of those influenced musicians, including producer/Let’s Active leader Mitch Easter, The dB’s’ members, Chris Stamey and Will Rigby, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, are featured in the excellent documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. Co-directors Drew Denicola and Olivia Mori, with producer Danielle McCarthy, who was responsible for the entire project becoming a reality, have assembled together a seamless patchwork of archival footage, rare audio, vintage photographs (many from the camera of Memphis legend, William Eggleston) and interviews, forming an astute and moving portrait of the complex, near-mythological and often sad story of two talented songwriters, a brilliant band, a burgeoning studio and documents that almost went unnoticed. It is important to note that, equally, a documentary of Big Star nearly went undone.
Perhaps it was timing, in light of the recent re-releases and issues of recordings associated with Big Star (namely the superb box set, Big Star: Keep An Eye on the Sky), Ardent Studios (Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story) and Big Star member, Box Tops vocalist and solo artist, Alex Chilton (Free Again: The “1970” Sessions), John Fry, Ardent Studios’ chief engineer, producer and founder, granted approval in 2007 to the Nothing Can Hurt Me filmmakers, allowing them access to a treasure trove of archival material previously denied to a number of filmmakers who came before seeking permission. This prompted an opening of floodgates in capturing crucial interviews, such as producer/musician Jim Dickinson, photographer/ early Ardent Art Director Carole Manning and Big Star bassist Andy Hummel, all of whom have since passed away before the film’s completion.
Perhaps it was instinct that Fry entrusted these filmmakers to present the band’s complex story (and as well as his own, to some extent) with both an honesty and reverence. Nothing Can Hurt Me succeeds in presenting the arcs of Big Star’s short-lived span, and the subsequent, perplexing solo careers of its two principal songwriters, Chris Bell and Chilton (“two shooting comets” observed Andy Hummel) in a logical chronological narrative. A 1978 cryptic audio of Chilton interviewed on a Austin, TX radio station opens the film, illustrating how Chilton felt in his initial role with Big Star: “We broke up after the first album,” referring to 1973’s #1 Record, after which Bell left the band he initially formed.
Though, as Nothing Can Hurt Me illustrates, Chilton’s statement is partially true.
In 1973, publicist John King, who was assigned by label honchos to work as a special PR representative for Big Star, concocted the first-ever Rock Writers’ Convention, inviting over 100 top rock scribes nationally. The list included Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches, Cameron Crowe, among many others. Cleverly, King attempted to create an opportunity for rock/pop writers to unionize, while also featuring Big Star as the musical headliner. After Bell’s departure, King was instrumental in convincing Chilton to continue with Big Star (as a trio) and to record a follow-up to their overlooked debut (which would be the more rough-edged, yet equally masterful, Radio City). Along with King, Creem staff writers Jaan Uhelszki and Billy Altman, freelance writer/ Patti Smith Group member, Lenny Kaye, and Memphis musician/ raconteur, Ross Johnson give insightful observations of the convention and how Big Star won over an audience of jaded and intoxicated music writers.
Jim Dickinson and John Fry represent the center, the heart, of Nothing Can Hurt Me. Their eyewitness accounts are sharp, clear and poignant (Dickinson passed away shortly after he was initially filmed by Danielle McCarthy in the documentary’s early stages). As a 21-year-old tech geek, Fry started Ardent Studios, and eventually encouraged a young group of eager musicians, including Bell (who was still in his teens), Chilton and Dickinson, to use Ardent as a “school” of sorts, giving them keys to studio to hone their engineering skills and create their own demos during the studio’s off-hours. So by the time #1 Record was ready to record, the band, namely Bell and Chilton, had their arrangements and overall sound worked out. Fry also comments in the documentary that much of the record was engineered by Bell since Fry was often busy engineering Stax’s acts (Stax then had an overflow of sessions being recorded in the early ‘70s, and recruited Ardent to assist).
Tackling the tangling and multilayered narrative of Big Star recalls the often-quoted phrase of French New Wave auteur/director Jean-Luc Godard: “In filmmaking you can either start with fiction or documentary. But whichever you start with, you inevitably find the other.” What the filmmakers have achieved is rare, unraveling the “facts” while allowing for the “myth” to be equally embraced, and subsequently letting an individual’s emotional impact to be shown. Perhaps Chilton understood the mythical reality of the band more than anyone. The documentary’s title borrows from “Big Black Car,” a dark song found on oddly maverick ’75 recording, Third/ Sister Lovers. “Driving in my big black car, nothing can go wrong,” Chilton croons hazily. “Nothing can hurt me, nothing can touch me. Why should I care? Driving’s a gas. It ain’t gonna last.”
Nothing Can Hurt Me is a thoroughly researched, fluid assemblage, employing an effective use of subtle graphic effects. The band’s achievements – the scintillating debut album, the ringing chime of the near-perfect pop song, Chilton’s “September Gurls,” highlighting the band’s second, Chilton-led phase and the deconstructive and melancholic aura over the Dickinson-produced Sister Lovers – are succinctly encapsulated in the documentary’s closing shot. John Fry, who sits behind the mixing board of Ardent, is revisiting the tape of “September Gurls.” As Chilton’s ringing solo enters, a smile inches across his face. It’s the expression that all Big Star fans share.
Nothing Can Hurt Me is currently on a select theatrical screening nationally. The DVD is slated for a November/ December 2013 release, with added footage.
Yesterday: 8 felonies, 17 misdemeanors, 0 infractions
Humboldt County Superior Court Calendar: Today
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Times-Standard Breaking: Crab fishermen hit the waters: First catch expected to hit docks today
Times-Standard News: Crab fishermen hit the waters: First catch expected to hit docks today
Mark Shikuma / Saturday, July 27 @ 8 a.m. / Music
Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, The Baptist Generals (Sub Pop)
There’s no question that The Baptist Generals’ mastermind Chris Flemmons belongs in special group of pop eccentrics, including fellow Texan Roky Erickson. After a series of unsuccessful attempts in completing a follow-up to his critically-lauded 2003 debut No Silver/No Gold (including scrapping an entire album in 2005), Flemmons backed away from writing and performing music, and instead, he began organizing alternative festivals in his hometown of Denton, Texas. It should be noted that Denton is homebase for an eclectic group of musicians, including The Polyphonic Spree, Brave Combo, Bowling For Soup and Midlake. So it came as no surprise that Flemmons found a thriving community of like-minded, talented musicians who could realize the songwriter’s more experimental sides of folk, rock and pop. Though, it does come as a minor surprise to find that The Baptist Generals’ sophomore Sub Pop full-length, Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, arrives as such a triumph.
Thankfully, Flemmons, a known control freak, loosened the reins on the long-labored collection of songs and relinquished control to his bandmates, most notably to Baptist Generals’ instrumentalists Peter Salisbury and Jason Reimer (who also co-produced). They, along with producer Stuart Sykes — who also worked with Cat Power, Loretta Lynn and The Walkmen, among others — shaped and flushed out the compositions, shaping Jackleg into a fully rounded recording.
The song that best exhibits the band’s intricate, eloquent and experimental instrumentation is “Turnunders and Overpasses,” with its syncopated drum beat, krautrock-like bass line, subtle eccentric percussive touches, brief organ chords and Flemmons’ nearly-cracking voice asking, “What do you want?”
From the opening, bright instrumental opener, the listener gets a sense that this isn’t a typical pop record, one normally “front-loaded” with epic hits. Pleasingly, it’s quite the opposite. Jackleg is a record you listen to on a home stereo wired with old-school speakers. There’s a contrast in its pace and contains arcs like an album, rewarding you when it has your full attention. “Dog That Bit You,” which immediately follows, is a jaunty, hazy, mid-tempo rock number that recalls a mixture of Crazy Horse and the Brooklyn-based lo-fi outfit Woods, with Flemmons’ nasal delivery rolls over the top. Flemmons’ raw, emotion leans toward the late singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt. There’s a bare, vulnerable yet powerful element they both share.
The song that best exhibits the band’s intricate, eloquent and experimental instrumentation is “Turnunders and Overpasses,” with its syncopated drum beat, krautrock-like bass line, subtle eccentric percussive touches, brief organ chords and Flemmons’ nearly-cracking voice asking, “What do you want?” Its masterful blend of acoustic and industrial has rarely been matched, with the exception of the excellent Tim Rutili-led band Califone. And like the best of Califone’s work, the Baptist Generals is inclusive of not only tattered folk from its previous incarnation but also contemporaries like Neutral Milk Hotel, while adopting slight international influences, giving the overall sound an “otherworld”-like affect. And opposed to its hailed predecessor No Silver/No Gold, which felt heavily cathartic, Jackleg is more introspective and unconventionally elegant.
The tender “Snow On the FM,” for example, is a spare, Bossa Nova-pop ballad, that provides the perfect blanket for Flemmons’ aching vocals and poetic lyrics. “Can you see the morning coming in? Can you feel me anywhere inside your heart?” he asks. “I try to make the shape of you; you’re just a shadow in my empty arms.”
According to Sub Pop’s PR statement, this is Flemmons’ “love” record. However, from the eccentric songwriter’s perspective, Jackleg serves as both a prism and a complicated weave, similar to a tree’s roots, of what that vision of love is — simultaneously beautiful, haunting, painful and graceful. Aesthetically, Jackleg adheres to the antiquated concept of an album. Songs flow from the “A Side” to the following flipside. And if you allow it, it has a lingering, haunting affect that sticks with you: a repeating guitar riff, the percussive brushing of a kitchen tool or a line such as “What do you want … for your heart?” And you may ask yourself that same question. Jackleg Devotional to the Heart can have that kind of effect.
Cake, Reggie Watts, Drew Carey, Emmylou Harris and the Rest of Center Arts’ 2013/14 Season Announced
Andrew Goff / Friday, June 14 @ 6:16 p.m. / Music
CenterArts decided that 6 p.m. on a Friday was the best time to announce their full 2013/14 schedule, and this error in judgment angered your Lost Coast Outpost immensely. But then we got over it. Mostly because we scoped the lineup. Reggie Watts! Cake! Andrew Bird! We can work with this. Prepare to welcome the following artists to Humboldt with your open wallets and hearts:
- 8/22/2013 - Cake
- 9/3/2013 - STOMP
- 9/4/2013 - STOMP
- 9/6/2013 - Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires
- 9/10/2013 - Jimmy Cliff
- 9/12/2013 - LINES Ballet
- 9/19/2013 - Boz Scaggs
- 9/20/2013 - Drew Carey
- 10/1/2013 - Paul Ehrlich
- 10/3/2013 - Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
- 10/8/2013 - Van Cliburn Gold Medalist
- 10/17/2013 - Reggie Watts
- 10/25/2013 - Peter Singer
- 11/1/2013 - New York Gypsy All-Stars
- 11/15/2013 - Vladimir Feltsman: Piano
- 11/18/2013 - Andrew Bird
- 11/20/2013 - Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt
- 12/3/2013 - The Onion: Live!
- 12/6/2013 - Naomi Klein
- 12/8/2013 - Pink Martini
- 12/15/2013 - Blind Boys Of Alabama
- 1/18/2014 - David Lindley
- 1/23/2014 - Peking Acrobats
- 1/28/2014 - Grupo Corpo: Brazilian Dance
- 1/31/2014 - Tommy Emmanuel with Martin Taylor
- 2/1/2014 - Zappa Plays Zappa
- 2/6/2014 - Tao: The Art of Taiko!
- 2/8/2014 - Venice Baroque Orchestra
- 2/15/2014 - True Blues: Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis
- 2/18/2014 - Michael Eric Dyson
- 2/22/2014 - Colin Mochrie & Brad Sherwood from Whose Line is it Anyway?
- 3/2/2014 - Ani DiFranco
- 3/4/2014 - Blue Man Group
- 3/5/2014 - Blue Man Group
- 3/6/2014 - Wynton Marsalis & the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
- 3/21/2014 - Imago Theatre: Frogz
- 3/25/2014 - Trey McIntyre Project
- 4/8/2014 - Soweto Gospel Choir
- 4/14/2014 - Arturo S. Rodriguez
- 4/15/2014 - San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers featuring Alasdair Fraser
- 4/25/2014 - Greg Brown
- 4/29/2014 - Regina Carter
- 4/30/2014 - James Balog: Chasing Ice Live!
- 5/14/2014 - Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
For more details, head on over to CenterArts web home.
Mark Shikuma / Saturday, April 27 @ 9:24 a.m. / Music
Lady, Lady (Truth & Soul)
Copasetic. Synchronous. Two adjectives when joined produce a “very satisfactory existence, arising at precisely the same time.” In other words, the vocalist soul duo, Lady, featuring Terri Walker and Nicole Wray, are a combination that is copasetic synchronicity – in numerous layers. From one side of the Atlantic, London’s R&B singer-songwriter Terri Walker released four solo albums, gaining critical acclaim and a UK Mercury Prize nomination in 2003. However, Walker’s primary livelihood derived from singing backup vocals for pop stars such as Fergie and Jennifer Hudson. At 17, the Virginia-reared Walker jumpstarted her career, singing backup behind Missy Elliot; her vocals are featured on Elliot’s ‘98 release, Supa Dupa Fly. Though she too released a solo release in ‘98 (Make It Hot), her primary work was providing backup vocals for touring bands and studio work for artists such as Kid Cudi (Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager) and The Black Keys (Brother), including their side project Blakroc.
Several years ago, the two vocalists struck a friendship in New York and made an instant bond. On the Blacroc sessions, Walker first worked with production team of Leon Michels and Jeff “Dynamite” Silverman, both composers, musicians and co-founders of the Brooklyn soul label Truth & Soul (part of the Daptone label family tree); they also provided the arrangements and production for Lee Fields’ recent solo work while recording and performing as The El Michels Affair. When Wray and Walker struck a friendship several years ago, they bonded, among other things, over the love of classic ‘60s and ‘70s soul and R&B.
From the bright ring of piano intro in the opening track, “Tell the Truth,” and the way the rest of the band falls in with crisp execution, the duo jumps in, trading lead vocals and delivering drop-dead harmonies. Wray and Walker seem to effortlessly weave their vocals, each with their own signature – Wray possesses a from-the-gut bass sound, while Walker lends a brassy, higher end. And when the two vocalists meet at the harmonies, it’s copasetic synchronicity. There’s a sincere gospel-soul conviction and immediacy that runs deep through this head-turning debut.
Equally, a perfect combination exists between the vocalist duo and the supporting musicians, all of whom are members of a talented stable under the greater Brooklyn-based Daptone label. Aside from The El Michels Affair and The Expressions, various members are featured in Menahan Street Band, The Budos Band and Sharon Jones’ Dap Kings, among others. As opposed to simply mimicking or recreating ‘60s and ‘70s soul, funk and R&B, these musicians have an ability to create hybrids from different time periods and studios – and for Lady’s self-titled debut, they specifically focus on Memphis (Stax and Hi studios), Detroit (Motown) and New York (Atlantic and The Brill Building). Under Michels and Silverman’s production, the execution and arrangements are tight, unified and live, unfettered by any clever studio recreation tricks.
Taking care of the lyrics, Walker and Wray drew inspiration from their own experiences and families, writing from the point of view of working mothers, women and, well, ladies. “We really sing to the 9-to-5 people getting up for work,” said Wray in a recent interview with Essence magazine. “The single moms, people who are struggling, people who identify with real life day-to-day situations. We came to the studio, we heard the music and we just started writing about what was going on in our lives.”
The exuberance of Lady is immediate and infectious. There’s an effortless thread that weaves through the vocals, harmonies, instrumentation and confident, yet loose, groove. Perhaps what is “recreated” is the method of recording those ‘60s and early ‘70s soul gems; coral a talented stable of musicians, find vocalists who can articulate emotion into melodies, work out arrangements and composition with said musicians and vocalists, hit record and play. Easier said than done for most. Yet Lady does it oh-so-well.
Mark Shikuma / Saturday, March 16 @ 8:24 a.m. / Music
What the Brothers Sang, Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Drag City)
The last time Will Oldham’s nom de plume/alter ego Bonnie “Prince” Billy collaborated with Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy for a full-length recording was BPB’s angelic 2006 Icelandic record The Letting Go. It combined a pared-down band with lush, complex orchestrations (arranged by Nico Muhly), and McCarthy’s vocal contributions gave the album a Gaelic-Appalachian edge. The subsequent tour, consisting of Faun Fables opening each nightly set fortunately twisted its way through Humboldt County in November 2006, delivering one of the most memorable musical performances (at least from this reviewer’s perspective) at the intimate Synapsis space in Eureka.
Since then, the Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona took on different line-ups, apart from guitar stalwart Emmett Kelly, with a string of recordings, exploring the varied dark terrains, subtle sonic changes and occasional hootenannies of Oldham’s mind. So it comes as a surprise that McCarthy and Oldham have collaborated on their first full-length in six odd years, while designing the collaboration around songs initially sung by the harmonic titan duo of The Everly Brothers. What the Brothers Sang serves as a tribute to the Southern-based brother-singing duo while also trying to reshape arrangements and orchestrations from their originals, stretching towards something unique.
Even though a numerous and eclectic body of musicians/bands have covered Everly Brothers songs, including Linda Rondstadt, Memphis garage band, Reigning Sound, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds (a bonus four-song EP was originally released as a bonus 7” accompanying the vinyl release of Rockpile’s ’80 self-titled debut), and, most recently, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, no one has had the nerve to dedicate an entire full-length to The Everly Brothers’ work. McCarthy and Oldham have wisely sidestepped many of their best known ‘50s hits, like “When Will I Be Loved,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love.” In turn, for the most part, McCarthy and Oldham have concentrated on the late ‘60s and early ‘70s period of The Everly Brothers’ canon.
Aside from the aforementioned guitarist-vocalist, Emmett Kelly, McCarthy and Oldham assembled some of the most extinguished group of Nashville session players, including drummer Kenny Malone, bassist Dave Roe, keyboardist Bobby Wood and pedal steel player Dan Dugmore. Collectively, they’ve recorded with some of country music’s royal stable, including George Jones, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Charlie Louvin, Dwight Yoakum and Charley Pride, to name a few. Additionally, they corralled younger Nashville producer Dave Ferguson, who’s best known for his engineering work on the latter-day Johnny Cash album “American Recordings” and lending his production talents to the likes of John Prine and The Del McCoury Band. Ferguson keeps the sound simple, warm and clean, while the accompaniment adds subtle depth to McCarthy and Oldham’s arrangements without overwhelming the vocals.
McCarthy and Oldham successfully interweave their own vocal harmonies in exposing and lifting many of The Everly Brothers lost gems, including Kris Kristofferson’s pre-alt. country “Breakdown,” recorded for their ’72 album, Stories We Could Tell, the delicate chamber folk-pop of “Empty Boxes,” penned by The Beau Brummels’ Ron Elliott, and two of Don Everly’s late ‘60s compositions, the British Folk-influenced “My Little Yellow Bird” and the mysterious “Omaha.”
However, the pair can’t really match the shimmering psychedelic pop original of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “You’re Just What I Was Looking For,” originally recorded by The Everlys in ’67, yet remained unreleased until ’80. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have one of the songwriters, Carole King, to sing backup on the original.) For two ’58 classics, “Devoted to You,” written by the legendary songwriting husband-wife duo Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and Karl Davis’ aching “Kentucky,” recorded in ’58, McCarthy and Oldham perhaps illustrates how difficult it is to deconstruct perfection. And, at least in these instances, it simply can’t be done, yet.
What the Brothers Sang’s well-thought-out selection itself serves as an excellent tribute and entry to the brilliant work of The Everly Brothers. McCarthy and Oldham valiantly put their sincere, full effort in tackling the complexities of the brothers’ execution and arrangement, and they often hit the mark, with enough of a distinction from its original, especially when they seem to tap their initial chemistry that transpired on their The Letting Go vocal collaboration. More importantly, perhaps, it urges the listener to seek the originals, to discover (or rediscover) the magic of The Everly Brothers, as they took their unique, Southern-based harmonies and evolved and experimented, often with results akin to Brian Wilson’s and The Beatles’ more challenging work. At the crest of two tumultuous decades, The Everly Brothers found themselves without the critical and popular attention now afforded to those whom once were hungry mentors of their artistry.
(“On the Record” is KHSU Music Director Mark Shikuma’s occasional column about new records.)