Priest Picks #4: Our Weekly Top 10
Welcome to this week's Top 10 list. Despite a tough week in America, the show goes on. As always, we've got 10 distractions for you to mull over, adopt, dismiss, or resent. You're already forgiven if your taste in music doesn't match mine. That's the way it's supposed to be. But keep and open mind, you never know what will sneak in.
1. ANGELICA GARCIA / Cha Cha Palace
This is a record that evokes a cultural state of mind. Angelica Garcia tells you right off where she stands on the single “Jicama” (which famously made Barack Obama’s favorite songs of 2019 playlist); “I see you, but you don’t see me,” and later, “Like you, I was born in this country.” She’s fiercely proud of where she comes from and where she’s at now (Virginia via East Los Angeles via Guadalupe and San Salvador) and her music positively exudes that pride of origin. She's experienced her heritage alive and well on the streets of East L.A. and she celebrates it. Her story reminds me of Los Lobos when they first emerged. While always striking out in new directions, their hearts still beat with the rhythms of the neighborhood no matter where their music takes them. Garcia is no different; where she goes her past goes, but her path has a distinctive contemporary feel. It’s full of life (“I don’t believe in death!”), it breathes, it dances, and it doesn’t look back (“I’d hate to have something as silly as yesterday be what chains me down”). Positively brimming with swagger (“Karma the Knife”), she walks the streets letting people know what she wants, and she wants it all, she deserves it all, just like anyone else in this country. Talk about essential listening for these times—it’s more than a record, it’s a manifesto. It’s also a great time. Messages aplenty, yes, but oftentimes it sounds like a street festival, with tossed off lines to make you smile as you meander through the crowd. (“If you stop eating tortillas/Maybe you’d lose weight!”) Then, with a deft touch, something powerful slips in to spin your head around, “My hometown has a chain-link fence…some say my hometown it hinders me/And that hurts me” which is quickly rebuked by the song’s title “It Don’t Hinder Me.” The assumption that her perceived social status is holding her back clearly and rightfully irritates her. What I love about this record is that Angelica is the first to admit where she falls short in her efforts to rise above. On the mixtape of 2020's best, expect to find “Penny in My Back Pocket” whose playground chorus (“I got a penny in my back pocket/For good luck”) could obscure some of the more powerful messages of self-awareness present “If I ever fall/I wouldn’t want to turn and blame the ground.” Just because you want to get somewhere doesn’t mean you have to know the way (Spacebomb)
2. FRAZEY FORD / U Kin B the Sun
When that first trickle of sweat rolls down your back and into your butt crack, you know it’s Frazey time. Her name should be a weather condition. “Man, it’s frazey outside today.” It’s don’t-make- an-unnecessary-move hot; vision blurring and words slurring hot. It’s a bit surprising that Frazey is a Canadian—she made her name as an original member of the revered Be Good Tanyas—because she sings like she grew up in the American South. She’s been blessed with a distinctive and soulful voice—one that causes an “is this for real” double-take the first time you hear it. While smooth and expressive, it’s never overused. What I would call it is invested. She’s deep in these songs, almost as if she’s forgotten a recording session is in progress. In her world, mood and feeling is paramount, so enunciating every word is unnecessary (or impossible). Rest assured, you’ll understand where she’s coming from. Her band support her accordingly. The bass does the heavy lifting throughout and creates a thick comfortable bed for Frazey’s voice. The drums move with her voice, allowing plenty of open air for the songs to hover. These must’ve been some magical recording sessions. Some songs stand out—the chorus to “U and Me”* or the intro to “Motherfucker” for instance—but I think you’ll find out what I did soon enough. Once you get into the Frazey zone, you want as much of it as she’ll allow. (Arts + Crafts)
3. AMY LAVERE / Painting Blue
Amy Lavere is a favorite of mine. In a world packed with guitar and microphone types, it takes something special to stand out. Amy has the voice of a teenager, but the pen of a seasoned veteran. The dichotomy brings out songs that sound fun and cute on the surface, but belie a depth of maturity deep down. “Girlfriends” is a prime example, “Don’t let your girlfriends tell you what you need.” Sage advice for all—you often miss the nuances of tough decisions when deferring to a group mentality. Same for the great “No Room for Baby,” which faces the reality that motherhood isn’t for everybody—especially a touring musician. Every Amy Lavere album is worth hearing and Painting Blue is no different. (Archer)
4. EARLY JAMES / Singing for My Supper
The name Early James evokes the image of an old soul singing songs left to gather dust on a high shelf in some general store waiting for a keen eye to brush them off and take them home. It also sounds like the name of a cheap whiskey I used to drink in college. While his new record will be rightfully classified as Americana because it draws from indigenous styles like country, blues, soul and folk, I don’t consider this a throwback exercise. It’s familiar, but anything but typical. Born Frederick James Mullis Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama, his uniquely structured songs caught the attention of the ubiquitous Dan Auerbach (his ear for talent remarkable) who produced the record. It doesn’t take long to figure out what drew his attention. “Blue Pills” (not about Viagra) defies expectations from the get-go. While first songs normally grab you early (pun intended) out of fear of losing your attention, here we get a slow, patient build, our first intro to Early’s distinct, Steve Forbert-esque voice, still 65 seconds out. The main groove isn’t even found until the 40-second mark. Early enters late introducing us to a guy whose “balance” medication is betraying him, “Can’t walk a straight line/I’m runnin’ on strychnine” and suddenly you realize this isn’t a guy who is stuck in the past. “Way of the Dinosaur” clarifies matters, “Well it seems to me/Originality/Up left and went the way of the dinosaur.” James straddles a line throughout the record somewhere between a county fair and a psych ward. He’s capable of a good old-fashioned folk tune (“Easter Eggs”) but there’s always an odd angle underneath the surface. The songs move at a different pace than you’d expect, meandering in odd directions—going this way and that. He clearly loves his influences, but he’s not settling for being an antique on a shelf even if at times he revels in being just that. (Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch)
5. KHRUANGBIN & LEON BRIDGES / Texas
Instrumental band seeks vocalist for side project. It’s just a recording session—no obligations. On paper, this seems like a love connection. One artist has gained acclaim through their instrumental work—combining influences previously thought uncombinable—and ended up becoming something of a buzz band in the process. The other, a modern R&B-styled singer with a rich, smooth voice that sometimes recalls a slightly raspier Sam Cooke. An intriguing recipe promising all kinds of exotic flavors. The resulting EP is excellent, but not completely what I was hoping for, if I’m to be honest. It starts off with the hazy title track, which is great, but it’s all Leon Bridges at this point with a toe-dipping Khruangbin sitting poolside. “Midnight” finds the motley Khru getting warmed up, starting to percolate. “C-Side” is when the chemistry finally delivers the intended reaction. There’s just enough of both artist’s strengths present to merit a recommendation for a full-length collaboration in the future, one where there’s time for each to stretch out. Kind of like “Conversion,” the EP’s final track, where both take their time getting to a destination. The more each get out of their comfort zones and loosen up, the better this collaboration can be. Still, as is, this is sweet Texas tea for wherever and whenever things heat up.
6. RATBOYS / Printer’s Devil
7. BEACH BUNNY / Honeymoon
I made shitloads of mixtapes way back in the day and I used to listen to some of the survivors now and then (less so since my four-wheeled cassette deck had to be sold unceremoniously for 500 bucks). One of my favorite themes
was called “Pop Rocks,” where I’d compile a bunch of power-pop, pop-punk, crunch-pop, or whatever you call such songs. Pop Rocks were a hot candy when I was a kid (they still make them to this day); they were effervescent pebbles that literally popped in your mouth with little chemical reactions. Super healthy, too! Thankfully there’s no end to bands that write fun, crisp, punchy rock songs with a catchy melody, and a snappy chorus. I don’t care what’s currently pounding out of high school parking lots, these bands exist and always will.* Ratboys and Beach Bunny are two female-fronted crunch pop bands from Chicago, each featuring a lead singer who knows how to write super catchy songs with emotional depth that give us just what we pop addicts need, but also adds something fresh to a pretty populated genre.
Julia Steiner is the motor behind Ratboys, and her songs aren’t the usual boy-meets-girl type love songs, instead replaced with strange occurrences and existential dread. These are songs that need some picking apart to understand. “I Go Out at Night” is typical of her skewed brand of pop, “I just had a thought/What if I never came home?/I’d go and get a job/Uninstalling 90s payphones.” What kind of mind even thinks of such things? She provides something close to an answer later in the same song, “Pick apart my brain/Put in back in my head/Should I write it down hastily/Or let is rest?” It sounds like she opted for the former in almost every case on Printer’s Devil. But what is most important is that she never loses sight of the goal: catchy pop melodies come first.
Beach Bunny’s Lili Trifilio is a significantly more conventional songwriter** than Julia Steiner, but her songs snap, crackle, and pop just the same. After a viral hit, “Prom Queen,” and an EP by the same name, her band is back with a strong pop record that’s not really the perfect match for a pandemic. The record begs for an open-top drive down Lake Shore Drive and some sympathetic ears to share in the emotional twists and turns of modern love. (Ratboys on Topshelf; Beach Bunny on Mom+Pop)
*Here are 50 such pop bands right off the top of my head: Apples in Stereo, Material Issue, Cherry Twister, Brakes, Lucky Soul, Jellyfish, Icecream Hands, Johan, The Merrymakers, Charly Bliss, The Rooks, The Singles, Shoes, 20/20, The Wannadies, Velvet Crush, Vandalias, The Toms, Super Deluxe, The Orange Humble Band, Sloan, The Shazam, Sorrows, The Beths, Redd Kross, Tacocat, The Posies, Big Star, Orange Peels, Off Broadway, Jale, Nada Surf, Gentleman Jesse, Frisbie, Flop, Earwig, DM3, Cub, The Connells, Cotton Mather, Berwanger, The Reflectors, The Beat, Army Navy, Critics, EZTV, Fountains of Wayne, The Kings, Liquor Giants, Owsley, The Pooh Sticks, and That Dog.
**That said, the band released a charity single on Bandcamp on May 31st titled “George Floyd” that you definitely should hear. It’s caused some controversy coming so soon after Floyd’s death, but the proceeds go to the family and the intent is clear even if some aren’t thrilled with the timing and message.
8. THE BOBBY LEES / “Coin,” “Guttermilk,” & “Drive”
I can be pretty anal about my listening habits. I wish advance tracks would just go away, but that’s the new world order and we’re stuck with it. Personally, I’d much rather wait and listen to an entire album for the first time like I’ve been doing my whole life. I do not appreciate being tempted. I love the anticipation of putting a new record on, never knowing what I’m in for, wondering what’s going to come out of my speakers, and the eternal optimist in me always hopes its going to be the first listen to my newest favorite record. So why would I want to blow that opportunity for just one track? Have we no self control!?
I’m only human. The Bobby Lees, who have now released five tracks from their forthcoming album, aren’t going to let their new album, Skin Suit, fully out of the bag until mid-July so why should I have to wait that long? After all, the record was produced by one of the all-time garage rock kings, Jon Spencer, and based on what I’ve heard, particularly these two killer tracks, we may have ourselves a new garage queen in singer and guitarist Sam Quartin. I love when a singer doesn’t quite look the part, and Quartin looks like she just got kicked out of Biology for like the fifth time this semester. She’s sings like she knows an aneurysm is imminent—seemingly a little nervous and defiant at the same time. She writes songs like a daredevil, too. If “Coin” is a high-speed car chase (“I wanna die with your hand in mine!”), then “Guttermilk” is a demolition derby, and when she beckons you to “Come and ride with me” on “Drive” you’re gonna be riding shotgun until she breaks you the news after it’s too late to bail, “They said we shouldn’t drive/We’re feeling slightly suicidal.” (Alive)
9. NADINE SHAH / “Buckfast”
Another advance track! What’s happening to me? In truth, I didn’t realize such until it was too late. Anyway, I really liked Nadine’s record, Fast Food, from 2015, but I’ve lost touch with her since. She’s back for another, and by the sound of “Buckfast” from her new album, Kitchen Sink, I’m going to like it. The album’s title implies she could be bringing a little of everything to this album, so I’m cautiously optimistic that “Buckfast” is indicative of her new creative direction. The song begins with a great line, “Eating food too embarrassing to list,” which seems more appropriate for an album called Fast Food, but no matter, nobody delivers a line like that quite like Nadine. She’s has a natural air of cool sophistication on her worst days, so it’s refreshing to find a “lady” who’s not afraid to hammer down a box of Ding Dongs if that’s all that’s left in her flat. “Buckfast” seems to be about the realities of growing older and not having things turn out like you expected, so the image makes thematic sense. It’s no coincidence that the song is titled after a cheap tonic wine (once made by monks!) now favored by street drinkers (nicknamed “Commotion Lotion” by some). You never know what you’ll resort to if life’s fortune turns its back on you! Thankfully, the song isn’t housed in a sad bastard package. Instead, it sounds a little “Buckfast pissed” itself as it staggers around banging its shins on the coffee table looking for a place to pass out. (Infectious)
10. PIRATE METAL
What you’re about to read is true. None of the names have been changed because nobody is innocent. Yes, pirate metal is a thing. Metal was not allowed another sub-genre, let alone one that incorporates pirate lore and/or tired pirate stereotypes, but here we are dealing with it like it’s a viable art form.
I happened upon pirate metal because of my “coc” habit—I will pretty much eat anything that has so much as a shaving of coconut in it. So, this week as I was perusing the new releases I spotted an album titled Curse of the Crystal Coconut by a Scottish band named Alestorm. I just won’t miss the word ‘coconut’ no matter how much you try and bury it. Tolstoy could mention a coconut once in War and Peace and I’d be able to suss it out in a matter of minutes. (As it turns out, there’s not much coconut action in the great Russian novels, with the exception of Pushkin, of course.) During the extensive research for this entry, I did stumble upon the recipe for a Toasted Coconut White Russian, which sounds fabulous, so sifting through some pirate metal has generated at least one small unexpected treasure. Unsurprisingly, Alestorm’s new record is as ridiculous as it sounds. Tracks include “Treasure Chest Party Quest,” “Call of the Waves” and “Pirate Metal Drinking Crew,” which sounds like a brochure for a pirate-themed adventure which fails to mention the grind it is to keep a pirate ship operational (read the small print is my advice). My personal favorite song “Wooden Leg, Pt. 2 (The Woodening),” based solely on title alone, almost redeems the whole affair, but “Zombies Ate My Pirate Ship” finds Alestorm pushing it way too far—and for a pirate metal band, I don’t know how that can even happen. I do appreciate that two versions of Curse of the Crystal Coconut are included on the CD—one a full- production onslaught and the other a “16th Century Version” with a more stripped down approach with what I’m going to assume are period-specific instruments only. You can’t make this shit up.
But Alestorm wasn’t the pioneer of the pirate metal genre, believe it or not. That honor goes to German heavy metal band Running Wild, who named their debut album Under Jolly Roger and things then took on a life of their own, albeit by accident, and soon they were dressing like pirates on stage and their fans were doing the same. Anyway, a new genre was born and it seemed like good fun for about 15 minutes or however long it takes a child’s birthday party to disperse. Soon, bands like The Dread Crew of Oddwood (from Pirate-friendly San Diego) and, you
probably saw this coming, Swashbuckle* was next, formed by two soul maties after a chance meeting at a New Jersey Red Lobster. True story. After three albums, the band has stopped recording (I’m going to guess it was not their choice) leaving us with a final EP, the hilariously titled We Hate the Sea, in 2014. Perhaps the title was a cry for help in retrospect. So there you have it, a primer on pirate metal. All due to an out of control coconut habit. (Alestorm on Napalm; the rest you can look up if remotely interested)
*One last morsel from Wikipedia, and I can’t imagine they got this wrong, is this useless factoid: “Swashbuckle tune their instruments to D standard tuning.” Why exactly would this need to be pointed out? Is this atypical for a pirate metal band? What would happen if a pirate metal band suddenly adopted an Open C tuning? Would they be forced at swordpoint to walk the plank?
Keep your heads screwed on until next week and stay calm. If that doesn't work, buy yourself a couple new pirate metal records.