Priest Picks #2: Our Weekly Top 10
Every Monday, this is where you'll find ten loosely curated items of intrigue, anointed by the Pickled Priest himself. Lots of new music, some rediscovered old music, an album here, a song there, and perhaps an unclassifiable curiosity randomly tossed in at our pleasure. (Note: not ranked)
1. THE WHO / “Athena”
Let’s get this out of the way right now. The name Pickled Priest comes from the following couplet from the Pete Townshend-written “Athena” from The Who's universally and correctly panned It's Hard record from 1982. The lyrics follow:
There was a beautiful white horse I saw on a dream stage
He had a snake the size of a sewer pipe living in his rib cage
I felt like a pickled priest who was being flambéed
"Athena" isn't listed by many as one of the top Who songs of all time, but it also isn't unknown. Many, this writer included (who loves it like the baby girl he never had), have an unhealthy affection for the song—others just haven't come around yet. No joke, it's the Who song I've listened to the most in the last twenty years and I'm a lifelong Who fanatic. Why does it work, exactly? The secret weapon of "Athena" is that is doesn't sound like any other Who song—even for a group known for its instantly identifiable singles. It's an ebbing and flowing pop song with daft lyrics that require a little dexterity of tongue to sing. Take the couplet referenced above. Just try not to delight in the pitter-patter cadence of that classic Townshend burst of nonsense. Once you master it, it gets even more fun to trot it out in public. (To quote Harvard President Lawrence Summers in The Social Network: "And you memorized that instead of doing what?") Remember the self-satisfaction you got when you nailed "Walk This Way" for the first time? You felt like you accomplished something. Same here. Our girl Athena is simply fun to goof off with. And I make no apology for that whatsoever. (Warner Brothers)
2. BLACK MARKET BRASS / Undying Thirst
Loveland, Ohio’s Colemine Records (named after owner Terry Cole) is, along with Brooklyn’s Daptone Records, one of the epicenters of authentic modern R&B, funk, and soul of all varieties. The consistency and potency of the records coming out of Colemine these days is especially amazing—they seemingly have a knack for finding artists who are not so much paying tribute to vintage sounds from the late-1960s and early-1970s, as they are making a claim that such music never should’ve gone away in the first place. Black Market Brass is one such example. Undying Thirst, their latest LP, is one of Colemine’s best ever releases, which is saying something. (The spiritual equivalent to Daptones' remarkable Budos Band, if you will.) Illogically based in Minneapolis, the 11 piece unleash real, not approximated, Afro-funk that will make you do a double-take upon discovering the release date was in February of this year! If you know nothing about Afro-beat, this is a perfect place to start. And there is nothing to fear unless riding a hot groove makes you break out in hives. Undying Thirst is the sound of a band fully arriving and stands in the same company of their influences, rather than kneeling at their feet. (Colemine)
3. LUCINDA WILLIAMS / Good Souls Better Angels
CHELSEA WILLIAMS / Beautiful and Strange
HAYLEY WILLIAMS / Petals for Armor
This triptych came about naturally, believe it or not. I was enjoying the new Lucinda record this week as I was working around the house, regularly pausing in amazement at her creative vitality at the (apparently) young age of 67. Then, paintbrush in hand, I moved on to Chelsea’s latest, mildly amused by the coincidence. With one more coat left, I then stumbled on Hayley’s first solo album away from her band Paramore and by this point I’m thinking conspiracy (was there a third Williams behind the grassy knoll?). Shockingly, the Williams Triplets have all managed to release excellent records simultaneously.
Chelsea may be the least known of the Williams triplets, but Beautiful and Strange may change that if the virus doesn’t diminish the attention her record richly deserves. It’s a “too” record. Too Americana for country, too eclectic to pigeonhole, too great of a voice to worry about assigning labels. She was named after Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” grew up soaking in all kinds of music from the Beatles to Bonnie Raitt, from the Pixies to Billie Holiday, and the record is better for it. It defies typecasting. These are well-written songs often rendered spectacular (“Dust”) by a voice that’s a natural gift, appearing effortless as a result.
Hayley joins this group in name only, that's where the similarities end. There’s not a hint of a Southern drawl or a jazz influence to be found anywhere on her first solo album, Petals for Armor. At about an hour, it’s too long of course, but the Priest forgives since it’s actually three EPs released over a period of time compiled into a formal album. You can see why she had to break away from Paramore to bring these songs out for public hearing. They’re highly personal, digging deep after some personal trauma. Perhaps you’ve heard this scenario too often these days—there does seem to be a gaggle of artists (mostly female) working through heavy shit via their music. It's called progress. But you haven’t heard it housed quite like this before. Art-pop basically means taking radio-ready pop songs and fucking them up a bit; experimenting with sounds, styles, and rhythms, while adding unexpected production embellishments and twisted lyrical content to create something appealing yet significantly off the formulaic grid. It’s music that keeps you engaged through unpredictability and exhilarated through creativity. And, thankfully, as with Billie Eilish, people are coming along for the ride. Thrilling singles “Simmer” and “Dead Horse” might be a way to quickly test your appreciation for this record, but I recommend you give the whole record your time. As with anybody who takes risks, not everything works perfectly, but there is more than enough here to give a very high recommendation. (Hwy. 20/Thirty Tigers; Bluélan; Atlantic, respectively)
4. PAM TILLIS / Looking for a Feeling
Pam Tillis, daughter of legendary country star/stutterer Mel Tillis (don’t think me insensitive, he played the latter quality to the hilt during his career to the point is was his on-stage trademark), has been mostly off my radar until now. My bad. Aware of her presence and the occasional tune, yes, but that’s where it ended. A quick review of her country credentials shows she’s fondly thought of (Grand Ole Opry inductee), but clearly a second-tier star based solely on overall chart success (which is everything in Nashville). If you’re in the Pam Tillis Fan Club, don’t hunt me down—I’m speaking mostly from ignorance. After stumbling on Looking for a Feeling in the new release pile one week, to kill some time I gave the record a spin. Needless to say, I was floored. What have I been missing all this time? As it turns out, based on a hasty tour of her back catalog, not a treasure trove, but she does have a killer voice and a tendency to drive off the country map now and then. Thankfully, there’s been a resurgence of great late-career country albums recently and it looks like Pam may be next in line. With the freedom to do as she pleases on her own record label, Looking for a Feeling sounds positively energized in all ways—from the album cover (Is she eating an Oreo cooking in an orange shower? If so, I love her even more) to the mostly original material included within. What’s most striking is the soulfulness of the record (title track & “The Scheme of Things”), the restraint of the production (“Last Summer’s Wine). I was on board based on the first three songs, but “Dolly 1969,” a song about a photo of Dolly Parton she has on her wall, is an instant classic. Part spoken word, part catchy chorus, all groove. A real stunner. Yes, there are a couple moments that don’t work for me (it’s harmless in context, but taking on Gillian Welch’s “Dark Turn of Mind” shows a keen ear for a great song, but gets crushed by the original) and “Karma” perhaps tries a bit too hard to be Kacey Musgraves. But small quibbles for an otherwise shockingly relevant and wonderful discovery. (Stellar Cat)
5. ROWLAND S HOWARD / Teenage Snuff Film & Pop Crimes; Autoluminescent (film)
Recently, I picked up the reissues of two revered cult classics by one-time Birthday Party guitarist and future “misunderstood/lost genius” (depending on whom you speak to), Rowland S Howard. It doesn’t take long to understand why he got together with Nick Cave in the first place, as they share a distinct dark and brooding mythology, but it’s also no surprise that Rowland had to take his own wayward path eventually. All of this is messily chronicled in the flawed, but revealing documentary, Auto luminescent, from 2011. The film paints a blurry portrait of a kid who knew he was “special” from the get-go (not a good thing in all respects, especially during his pretentious/insufferable teenage years). The doc is worth watching for many reasons, particularly for early footage of The Birthday Party in action on stage—an absolutely ferocious and frightening presence—with Rowland’s reckless guitar terrorism obviously essential to the band’s early power and mystique. However, as Nick Cave was emerging more and more as the band’s dominant force, the songs that Howard was writing in his warped and wired mind were simply too compelling to ignore any longer. We’ll leave Howard’s time with Crime & the City Solution and These Immortal Souls for another time (never perhaps) and focus on his solo work for now. The unfortunately titled Teenage Snuff Film from 1999 easily earns its lost classic status on first listen to album opener “Dead Radio.” If you don’t like what you hear, this admittedly acquired taste may not be for you. But if you’re like me, you’ll delve in and dissect the lyrics and enjoy the brooding like it’s your birthright. You’ll have to forgive a few overworked couplets here and there, but what dark soul isn’t overdramatic now and again? Cave (who appears in the doc) wasn’t the only original songwriter in the B-Day Party, it turns out. “I’ve lost the power/I had to distinguish/Between what to ignite/And what to extinguish” goes the chorus to “Dead Radio” a love song that ends, shall we say, less than optimally, “You left me to choke/On a heart up in smoke.” But the hearts yearns for what it can’t have, so the story continues.
Fast-forward a full decade until you reach Pop Crimes, released in 2009, for his second helping of cult classic status. Some would say he was doomed from the beginning (Rowland included) and that proved true as he died of liver cancer shortly after completing this record. It’s a tragedy or course, but what a way to go out (right up there with J Dilla’s Donuts!). Again, the record starts with a litmus test for potential new fans. “(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny” is truly a pop noir classic (“She’s my narcotic lollipop”) for those so inclined. The record bookends with “The Golden Age of Bloodshed” (perhaps not the best pandemic record, in retrospect) featuring one of the great opening lines ever, “The signs in the sky won’t let up/The clouds assume the shape/Of Catholic girls with Uzis/All of them on the make.” I for one wish he would’ve been given more time—although he worked in a dark cave (pun intended) he also deserved his day in the sun. (Both LPs reissued by Fat Possum)
6. JACQUES DUTRONC / Jacques Dutronc
Been on a little retro French-pop kick for a while around here (sans marinière et berets, merci). Mostly the usual girl-pop like France Gall, Jacqueline Taïeb, the legendary Françoise Hardy, and I hope it goes without saying, Brigitte Bardot. There are others. Realizing imminent claims of reverse sexism, I decided to delve beyond the sex kittens into les garçons to provide some semblance of equal time (still unbalanced; who will blame me?). Honestly, I feel I’ve done only the bare minimum by merely obtaining a couple Serge Gainsbourg records (required for my amateur rock critic’s permit), but beyond that, zero. So I started in on a list of acclaimed French “classics,” starting with Alain Bashung’s 1991 LP, Osez Josephine (admittedly drawn in by its ultra-sexy album cover, but also because the French edition of Rolling Stone ranked it as the #1 French rock album of all-time). It does includes some standout moments, “Volutes” and the title track are both
immediately striking, but the record suffers from a few too many covers of classic rock chestnuts for my taste, among them “Nights in White Satin,” Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” Buddy Holly’s “Well All Right,” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” all inexplicably sung in English (what’s the point really?) Things really took off for me when I moved on to Jacques Dutronc’s debut, mainly driven by the Last Shadow Puppet’s amazing cover of Dutronc’s “Les Cactus” from their 2016 mostly covers EP, The Dream Synopsis. Dutronc’s debut is one of my favorite foreign finds this year, an album packed with one garage (or in French, “garage”) nugget after the next. Who knew the French could rock? (If interested, his catalog is quite the mess, using different titles and cover art, and several albums are self-titled a la Peter Gabriel, so do some research and/or track comparison before indulging. For what it’s worth, the version listed here is on creamy white vinyl if that’s your confiture!) (Sony Legacy)
7. MARIACHI EL BRONX / “The Christian Life”
The Byrds version of the Louvin Brothers’ classic “The Christian Life” is one of my all-time favorite songs. Roger McGuinn brilliantly sang it on Sweetheart of the Rodeo instead of Gram Parsons due to some ridiculous contractual issues, but I must say I love the Gram take just as much (which can now be found on the CD version’s bonus tracks). While the McGuinn version is great as is, it does seem a natural fit for Gram’s voice, especially when he delivers the line “Others find pleasure in things I despise,” which for the Byrds has got to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but you’d never know it on the surface. The Gram version adds more than a modicum of irony considering Parsons was dead of a drug overdose about five years later. So much the Christian life. Over 50 years later comes a bit of a lark, but Mariachi El Bronx manage to convert “The Christian Life” into a viable mariachi tune on their recently released two-CD collection of B-side and rarities titled Musica Muerta, Volumes 1 & 2. I’m a lover of mariachi music (yeah, yeah, we know already) and they are not by a long shot the most amazing and skilled mariachi band (that would be Mariachi Los Camperos), but they do have an unabashed love for the genre and why shouldn’t we have another soul-damning version "The Christian Life" to trot out on Cinco de Mayo while we’re all getting shit-faced on margaritas?
8. SLUM OF LEGS / Slum of Legs
Adjective alert. This queer, feminist, all-girl, Brighton, UK, noise-pop band is named after a comment made by architect/designer Eero Saarinen upon producing the “Tulip Armchair” in the mid-50s (see
photo), referencing his desire to liberate the chair from the usual “slum of legs.” It’s no coincidence that as a six-piece, Slum of Legs felt similarly as they took the stage—legs everywhere! At this point, I don’t know if there was something specific which drew me to their music, but I just knew I had to have whatever it was. I’m not one to pick bands based on a single comment from someone I don’t even know, but my favorite bit of rock publicity this year has got to be this claim: “Different from anything you’d make.” That’s pure genius. And it also sums up why I like this band so much. There’s just something about how this machine works, but I can’t really diagram any of the component specifications on paper. So off goes another Transatlantic transaction and weeks later the LP arrives via the Royal Mail. The record is far better than I remember from my first taste, thankfully, but I’m still not entirely sure how to describe it. Perhaps the band sums up their sound best: “Sometimes we sound like the Shaggs, Slant 6, and La Dusseldorf playing at an impromptu party in space.” So, that equates to lo-fi kosmische punk, then? Hmmm. If that’s not good enough, how about this very meta explanation from “Slum of Legs” by Slum of Legs off the Slum of Legs album: “We are a blast farrago/A panoply/We are the tuttifrutalists/See?” Well at least we've finally cleared that up. I love it when others do my job for me. (Spurge)
9. ASHLEY MCBRYDE / “Styrofoam”
TYLA GANG / “Styrofoam”
I’m not a huge lover of mainstream Nashville, although I’m a sucker for a classic country song now and then (you’ve gotta wade through a lot of horseshit to find them these days). That said, Ashley McBryde’s “Styrofoam” is not one of those songs. But I love it anyway for different reasons. Ashley has made her name by being a little left of Nashville center, a tough girl who can hold her own with the boys when the whiskey gets passed around and she clearly has a goofy sense of humor, too. How else to explain this oddball novelty that closes Never Will, her latest LP? The song tells a surprisingly detailed origin story of the lightweight foam that’s, for better or worse (likely worse, as our landfills are packed with the stuff) a major part of all our lives. Ashley found the song during a songwriter’s night at a Nashville bar (performed by the song’s writer Randall Clay) and her take on it is a total hoot (to quote her, “fun to sing and educational, too!”). As to the environmental ramifications, the song boils it down to the country essentials right quick, “I’m no scientist, all I know/Is this beer I’m drinkin’ is so cold.”
Make no mistake, however, you’ll have to rewind back to 1976 to find the greatest song about “Styrofoam” ever recorded by an obscure band called Tyla Gang on London's incomparable Stiff Records, perhaps the most underrated singles label in rock history. Known for their edgy slogans ("If it Ain't Stiff, It Ain't Worth a Fuck"), innovative marketing efforts (The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan LP was blank on both sides—and sold 30,000 copies!), and above all, a roster of some of the greatest pop songwriters of their time. Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, The Damned, and Ian Dury were a few of the noteworthy names featured on the label at one time or another. The true gold, however, was to be found in the relatively obscure singles tucked between those big name releases. Names like Tenpole Tudor, Jona Lewie, Wreckless Eric, Jane Aire & the Belvederes, and, of course, Tyla Gang. As soon as funds are available, buy one of the single most important components of any cool record collection, The Stiff Records Box Set. It's loaded with goodies like "Styrofoam," which was part of the only "double B-side" single released anywhere (its “flip-B-side” was “Texas Chainsaw Massacre Boogie,” sadly never covered by ZZ Top). In reality, "Styrofoam" isn't really much of a song, rather a lark with killer drum fills as propulsion, but it still holds conceptual water just like Ashley’s “Styrofoam,” recorded over 40 years later. What’s sad, is that even though Tyla Gang was bemoaning the chemical generation when they sang “Styrofoam cats/Styrofoam dogs/Styrofoam fireplaces/Styrofoam logs,” it’s clear we’ve learned absolutely nothing about saving our planet. Ashley’s “Styrofoam” proves that keeping the beer cold has always been more important to most of us than keeping the globe from getting too warm. (Warner Nashville; Stiff respectively)
10.THE TIPPO ALLSTARS FT. FIONA APPLE / “Your Molecular Structure”
Just prior to the heavens opening up, before the white doves were released, and a golden chariot pulled by golden Arabian horses descended with the new Fiona Apple album (A+!!! 10!!! 10+!!!! 5 stars!!! 6 stars?!!! Let’s make a whole new rating system that contemplates its brilliance!), she cut this little Mose Allison tribute track with a bunch of dudes calling themselves the Tippo Allstars (Benmont Tench et al), named after Mose’s hometown of Tippo, Mississippi. And wouldn’t you know it? This, too, is top notch, the highlight of If You’re Going to the City: A Tribute to Mose Allison, which was released with relatively little fanfare in late 2019. The record is for a good cause, too, benefiting the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which provides assistance to struggling musicians. So BUY it! Plus it’s got some real gems including Robbie Fulks’ take on the demented “My Brain,” Taj Mahal’s version of “Your Mind is On Vacation,” Iggy Pop (ubiquitous) with a stellar take on the title track, Bonnie Raitt doing a live version of “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” and a host of other dignitaries (Richard Thompson, Jackson Browne, Chrissie Hynde, Elvis Costello, Frank Black…) that only confirms what we already know. That the music of Mose Allison had a wide and lasting affect on a lot of people.
Blessings to all, but if that doesn't work get a couple new records.