Sunday, August 24, 2014

Local Limelight: Jay Mickens

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: August 24th, 2014

Take one part early John Mayer, one part Jack Johnson and about two parts Dave Matthews, mix them together until the lumps disappear, and you’ll end up with Jay Mickens, a independent singer-songwriter hailing from Prospect Park, NJ who can no doubt hold ground against even the giants of the so-called “Adult Contemporary” genre. But Jay Mickens is no one-trick pony, not by any stretch of the imagination. He can move seamlessly from the elegant chord progressions, the lush instrumentation and gentle melodies of the “Adult Contemporary” camp to the turned-up, distorted blues-rock that would keep The Black Keys on their toes; a musical feat of the highest order. Where a lesser musician would botch such genre-jumping and end up with an ungainly hodgepodge of various songs and styles, Mickens is light on his feet, deftly leaping from one sonic realm to another (and another) with a gracefulness and precision that almost makes you want to cheer aloud to yourself as though you were watching Olympic pole-vaulting.

On his latest release, “Inner Demons with External Means” (2014), which you could listen to on Spotify or buy on iTunes, Jay Mickens showcases this uncommon talent of his and then some. The opening track, “Always,” kicks off with an acoustic guitar chopping its way through your eardrums and bouncing around your head, against which a sedating electric guitar delicately dresses the rhythm section with tasteful and well-placed embellishments as Mickens sings, “You’re not the first but will be the last/You always had, girl, so much class/And I knew what to do.” The power of Mickens’ delivery does not come from any type of fervor but understatement. The distance and emotional reserve that Mickens sustains in his vocals has the almost paradoxical effect of allowing the impressions and ideas of the lyrics to stand on their own. So when the verses give way to the chorus and Mickens sings, or almost proclaims that “We all…want to be wanted/We all…feel it’s true,” he doesn’t need melodrama or vocal pyrotechnics to make the line feel true.

But then a few tracks into “Inner Demons with External Means” Jay Mickens throws a real curve-ball with the song “Movin’ on My Mind,” a nod conscious or not to Robert Johnson’s recording of “Rambling on My Mind,” probably the quintessential blues about breaking off ones shackles, literal or figurative, hitting the road and getting the hell out of Dodge. The song begins with the ever pleasant combination of finger picking and slide, the bass notes droning underneath Mickens’ blues licks that fire from the left and right. But what really tops off this song is how the intro sounds as though it was recorded in the same studio as Robert Johnson, with the same equipment. And just when you feel fully immersed in early 20th century America, the far-off, mystic quality of the recording moves into a crunchy and very robust version of the same blues. “I’ve got movin’ baby, movin’ is on my mind…” sings Mickens, not without the same reserve as “Always;” “You know when I’m leaving, girl, you won’t be far behind…” But this is merely a taste of the many virtues of Jay Mickens’ new album, if you want to know what else he has to offer, give it a listen yourself.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ty Segall’s New Album Just Might Be His Best Yet

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: August 15th, 2014

For a musician who has garnered a reputation for such a preternatural output – releasing under various monikers three full-length albums in 2012 alone – California’s garage-rock crusader, Ty Segall, has of late been conspicuously absent from record store shelves. Quite nearly losing his record-a-year stride, a precedent set and maintained ever since his first release in 2008, Segall’s latest effort Manipulator comes to us on August 26th, a little more than a year after 2013’s quiet, unpolished, angsty, yet satisfying Sleeper.

Manipulator is Ty Segall’s longest and most slaved over record, a 17 track double album that took close to 14 months to complete. One thinks of Steve Albini’s admonition to Nirvana just before the recording of In Utero whenever the term “double album” comes up: “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up.” But if anyone could defy Albini’s claim, it’s Segall. Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene writes promisingly of Segall’s upcoming release: “Every single thing Segall has ever been good at is here, refined and sharpened and polished until it feels like a platonic expression of itself…. [Manipulator] is the stab at a defining statement that Segall has always seemed congenitally allergic to.” Greene seems just a tad pretentious and hyperbolic here (“…like a platonic expression of itself…” Eek!), but in my mind he isn’t very far off the mark.

For those unfamiliar with Segall’s music, he is known most for a delightfully manic, playful and fuzzed-out brand of garage-rock which is at turns menacing, hypnotic, winsome, contemplative; just listen the songs “Where Your Head Goes”, “Goodbye Bread,” “Girlfriend,” “The Keepers,” and you’ll see. The new album, Manipulator, or what I’ve heard of it (which amounts to about a handful of songs), stands firmly on the ground Segall has inhabited since the beginning; only difference I could glean is that the new songs seem just a little less rough around the edges, which I suppose is what happens when one spends over a year making a record – luckily, the results are far from lifeless, sterile.

The first song off Manipulator I came across was “Tall Man Skinny Lady,” a bouncy tune that just begs to be sung along to (even if you don’t quite know the lyrics yet) and opens with a wide-open guitar solo that swings like a pendulum to the drum beat established and driven through your head. “Feel,” released as the album’s single, is probably Segall’s most groovy song with a middle-section breakdown that employs both a cowbell and what sounds like a triangle as embellishment to the rhythm section. And finally, “Susie Thumb,” which is a pleasantly fuzz-fucked psych romp that could have been a long-lost record from Segall’s 2012 album Twins. I’ve got a feeling we’re in for one of Segall’s best records.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why Albini Matters

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: August 8th, 2014

America’s best lefty magazine, The Baffler, a wonderfully crotchety arts & politics journal that claims, as its motto, to ‘blunt the cutting edge’, has recently digitized its entire back catalogue, including, among many other great pieces of cultural dissent, Steve Albini’s notorious but seminal essay on the music industry’s moral/artistic corruption and all-around fuckedness, “The Problem with Music.” Now, some of Albini’s points may seem self-evident if not just outdated in the post-Napster musical paradigm (I mean, the thing was published in ’93, right around the time Albini recorded Nirvana’s “In Utero” and was, consequently, immortalized as a sort of punk-rock anti-hero), but what’s important about this bold attack on the corporate beast, especially when the beast was at its most robust, is that it evinces a staunchly independent attitude which bands nowadays could do much worse than take heed of.

For those who don’t know, Steve Albini was a fixture of the 1980s punk scene in Chicago, most notably as a member of Big Black and the short-lived and incendiary Rapeman. While producing a body of noisy, abrasive, delightfully fucked-up music, Albini began moonlighting as the recording engineer of his contemporaries who likewise inhabited the very margins of music. Slowly, surely, Albini’s “sound” – if he even has a sound – caught the attention of medium-sized and larger-name acts, such as The Pixies, PJ Harvey, Fugazi, (as I mentioned above) Nirvana, and even Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for 1998’s “Walking into Clarksdale” (you know, when they forgot John Paul Jones’ phone number and then reformed Led Zeppelin), and all the while maintaining an unwavering punk-rock philosophy; Albini rejects the title “producer” and refuses to accept royalties for any work he does, rather he insists on being paid not unlike a plumber, i.e., payment upon services rendered.

With Albini at his most caustic, the essay opens: “Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit.” On one end of this metaphorical trench are the band and their contemporaries; on the other end “a faceless industry lackey… holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed.” With his opinion of the music industry made unambiguous, to say the least, Albini proceeds to pry open A&R Scouts, so-called Producers, and the general economics of a major-label record deal like it’s Crabfest at Red Lobster. But instead of performing a dull, undergraduate-style exegesis of Albini’s text, I’ll just quote you the best snatches of the essay and let it speak for itself:

Here’s Albini on A&R Scouts:

“The A&R person is the first person to make contact with the band, and as such is the first person to promise them the moon… Hell, he’s as naive as the band he’s duping. When he tells them no one will interfere in their creative process, he probably even believes it.”

On Recording:

“Producers and engineers who use meaningless words to make their clients think they know what’s going on. Words like “Punchy,” “Warm,” “Groove,” “Vibe,” “Feel.” Especially “Punchy” and “Warm.” Every time I hear those words, I want to throttle somebody.”

“The current trendy thing is compression. Compression by the ton, especially if it comes from a tube limiter. Wow. It doesn’t matter how awful the recording is, as long as it goes through a tube limiter, somebody will claim it sounds “warm,” or maybe even “punchy.” They might even compare it to the Beatles. I want to find the guy that invented compression and tear his liver out. I hate it. It makes everything sound like a beer commercial.”

And after sketching out a Profit & Loss statement for a hypothetical but not implausible band who’s signed to a major, recorded an album, and hit the road, Albini concludes:

“This is how much each player got paid at the end of the game.

Record company: $710,000

Producer: $90,000

Manager: $51,000

Studio: $52,500

Previous label: $50,000

Agent: $7,500

Lawyer: $12,000

Band member net income each: $4,031.25…

Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.”

All this may sound like just a bunch of trivial, early-90s cynicism, and I’m sure a lot of it is, what with the tectonic shifts that have occurred in the music industry since “The Problem with Music” was penned, but nevertheless Albini’s points and general attitude in this essay are, I think, important and insightful for bands and musicians active now. Even though a band can theoretically operate off the traditional corporate channels by promoting themselves on social media and, if feasible, by recording at home or in somebody’s grandmother’s basement, it never hurts to keep a keen eye out for exploitation in whatever form it may take; and Albini has quite an eye for hucksterism of any color and shape.

Friday, August 1, 2014

ESP Announces LTD Jeff Hanneman and Metallica Guitars

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: August 1st, 2014

At Summer NAMM 2014, which concluded its three-day stint last Saturday in Nashville, TN, ESP introduced two truly killer commemorative guitars. The first, to honor the life and work of Jeff Hanneman, the guitarist of Slayer who, sadly, passed away last year, is the limited-edition LTD JH Tribute guitar in Urban Camo; and the second, to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the release of Metallica’s seminal 1984 thrash-metal album, is the (likewise) limited-edition LTD “Ride the Lightning” guitar. Both of these axes are due in stores this December.

Working closely with the estate of Jeff Hanneman, ESP modeled the LTD JH Tribute on Hanneman’s own ESP in a recognizable urban-camouflage print. Not only does it look badass but a percentage of the proceeds from this guitar will be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project, a service organization providing aid to veterans who have served in the military since the September 11th attacks, which was an organization very close to Hanneman’s heart. In a statement on the Premier Guitar site, Matt Masciandaro, ESP’s President and CEO, says of the Hanneman tribute: “He was a good friend to many of us at ESP, and his passing last year was a shock to us all. For his family and for Slayer fans around the world, we felt that commemorating his contributions to music and supporting the Wounded Warrior Project via this new model was an appropriate measure.”

Coming to us a year after the success of ESP’s “Kill ‘Em All” guitar, which was released on the occasion of the 30-year anniversary of Metallica’s first album, the LTD “Ride the Lightning” model carries on its alder body a print of the album’s cover with lightning striking an electric chair, which is set against a deep blue, almost violet background. ESP will only be producing 300 of these guitars, so the demand among guitar enthusiasts, voracious collectors, and rabid Metallica fans will be high. Masciandaro, on Premier Guitar’s site, comments that “ESP and Metallica’s guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett have a relationship that goes back more than two decades,” a relationship that has spawned some of the greatest songs in metal, rock, or just music generally. Here are the specs for these bad-boys:

The LTD Jeff Hanneman Tribute Guitar:

• Body Material: Alder

• Neck Material: Maple

• Neck Type: Bolt-on construction

• Neck Scale: 25.5”

• Fingerboard Material: Ebony

• Number of Frets: 24 XJ frets

• Pickups: EMG 85 (neck) & EMG 81 (bridge) Pickups

• Pickup Type: Active

• Bridge: Kahler Hybrid Tremolo Bridge

• Body Type: Neck-Thru

• Special Features: Limited Edition Urban Camo Finish, special Fingerboard Inlay with Hanneman “H Dagger” fret-markers as well as a “1964-2013” 12th fret inlay, and includes a certificate of authenticity.

The LTD “Ride the Lightning” Guitar:

• Body Material: Alder

• Neck Material: Maple

• Neck Type: Bolt-on construction

• Neck Scale: 25.5”

• Fingerboard Material: Ebony

• Number of Frets: 24 XJ frets

• Pickup Type: EMG 60 (neck) & EMG 81 (bridge)

• Pickup Type: Active

• Bridge: TOM Bridge

• Body Type: String-Thru

• Special Features: Limited Edition Album Artwork graphic body, Metallica logo Fingerboard Inlay, and each guitar includes an ESP form-fit case with the Metallica Logo, and a certificate of authenticity.