Priest Picks #6: Our Weekly Top 10
We were tempted to put the new Run the Jewels album in spots one through ten this week and call it a day. That's how much we want you to listen to our #1 pick from last week. But that would do a disservice to so many brilliant artists who deserve some love, so for that reason we press on with another list of 10 things we were enjoying this week. No matter the circumstance, music is one of the things we can always count on for inspiration and solace from a harsh world. Or the exact opposite as the case may be. Are we really in a brave new world? We may find out sooner than later.
1. DEEPER / Auto-Pain
Deeper is a promising band from Chicago that specializes in that razor sharp, herky-jerky catharsis of post-punk bands from the early 80s (complete with synths, which were mandatory in the 80s). If you didn’t know any better you might think they’re a lost band from that era, but somehow this band manages to not sound like a nostalgia act. I credit that to a number of factors. First, they’ve got a great lead singer (using the term loosely) with just the perfect level of awkward jitteriness. They also write (stream?) great lyrics—each has some repeated phrase or hook to hold on to ("The Devil's on fire/So, fuck it and run!" and "What's the point of living this life?"). Several of these songs would already be classics if they weren’t just recorded a year ago. The band is also tight and propulsive—jagged riffs and tight baselines are everywhere (Peter Hook would approve). Singer/talker Nic Gohl is the focal point, a little Robert Smith, a little Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade), some Tom Verlaine (Television), and maybe even a little Tim Darcy (Ought). Each of those names has an extremely distinctive presence and Gohl has that attention-grabbing quality, too. He has a way of making every song sound urgently important. When all the elements come together it makes you think this is a natural progression from the past rather than a copy of it. Auto-Pain is also high-minded in concept, positioned as an answer record to Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World (and why the fuck not?). This time, instead of society being issued a drug to suppress rogue emotions, they’re proffering a new concept; prescribed pain to heighten all emotions. Hey, if the songs are good, I’ll buy just about anything. Yes, this style has been done before, but we always need great new bands in any genre no matter when they were born (90s neo-soul the one exception). I found this album really impressive on first listen and even better in subsequent trials. It gets me energized every time I hear it. This is a band I didn’t know I needed.
2. THE SECRET SISTERS / Saturn Return
Since I started Pickled Priest in March, many great albums from this year haven’t even been mentioned yet. Hence, we're giving two albums of the week today. I also hope to pick up the slack at the end of June (perhaps early July) with a mid-year Top 10 or 20 list, but one record I’m perseverating on, and have been all year, is Saturn Return by The Secret Sisters. The Sisters, Laura and Lydia, again demonstrate that there’s often no substitute for genetically designed harmonies. I fell hard for 2017’s You Don’t Own Me Anymore, but this time they’ve made their finest record to date. The album, by my count, has at least five songs that could some day be considered standards. “Late Bloomer” takes me back to the 70s singer songwriter movement and stands up to those great mellow favorites from AM radio’s heyday. “It doesn’t matter when you bloom, it matters that you did,” sing the sisters and the chorus is nothing short of sublime. It’s positively life affirming. So how can one describe their sound? A little country, a little soul, a little folk, all blended together to produce something decidedly unique in total. Anyone who has spent a little time with the girls knows it won’t be long until a dark storm cloud appears and “Cabin” is a devastating take of family betrayal via sexual abuse. Memories and artifacts common to typical happy families (including a summer cabin in this case) no longer exist for the girl in this song; instead they are replaced by desires to forget her past entirely. “Makes me want to burn this cabin down/Burn this cabin down/Burn it to the ground” goes the refrain and as the song unfolds you find out why. It’s a chilling track, but one that still benefits from the sisters sticking together in defiant unity. The song isn’t autobiographical, which seems to be clarified a couple songs later in “Fair,” a story of two neighbors, one with a horrible existence, one with a house full of love. Clearly the girls identify with the latter, but know the girl in the former. And if you aren’t moved by the inequity you’re one cold son of a bitch. While the genius of the sisters seems to get more pronounced the darker things get, the upbeat “Hand Over My Heart” shows another side, one requiring a close review of the lyrics to appreciate. It’s a brilliant song with a chorus that simultaneously stays the same, but changes every time. The context shifts in each section of the song. It’s an artful song, showing a great attention to detail and nuance. And the songs continue to amaze from there. “Nowhere, Baby” is beautiful country soul about self-doubt, homesickness, and continuing to follow a dream despite it all. And try not to drop a tear during “Hold You Dear.” It can’t be done. The Secret Sisters have always been great, but this is the record that should move them to another level. It’s everything great about music all in one convenient location.
3. JOHN PRINE / Picture Show: A Tribute Celebrating John Prine & “I Remember Everything” (single)
I’m toying with the idea of starting a section on this list called “The Best Two Hours of My Week” where I can highlight one special stretch of time well spent. This week that honor would’ve gone to the two hours I spent watching Picture Show: A Tribute Celebrating John Prine (which was streaming this weekend). If the loss of John Prine hasn’t hit you yet, this tribute will punch you in the face. Numerous artists, actors, friends, and family members came together to remember John via memories, archival video, and, most importantly, by playing his songs. It’s a beautiful tribute to a beautiful, amazingly humble human being. A guy who could bring a tear to your eye with a song one moment and then bristle at the new meat loaf recipe being implemented by his favorite diner the next. Great Prine quotes abound (“Don’t write what shouldn’t be there,” and “Fish don’t wear wristwatches” stand out), but the affection so many artists had for Prine is the main highlight. Jason Isbell and wife Amanda Shires kicked things off with a stunning “Hello in There” and a masterful “Clocks and Spoons.” When Isbell was singing, I couldn’t help but think someday he’ll be the subject of a similar tribute (hopefully many decades from now), as he is one of those special songwriters whose songs are built to last for generations. Amanda’s version of “Clocks” was equally gorgeous (although her leather body suit proved a distraction). Everything from that point forward was moving, and full of obvious love and affection, but some personal favorite moments were from Brandi Carlile on “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” and Kurt Vile’s perfectly chosen “Crazy as a Loon” (with Jim James, Courtney Marie Andrews, and John Paul White joining him). The absolute best moment for me was a clip of Prine himself talking about writing “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” and then playing it on the steps of a church with his proud family joining in quietly on the chorus. Imagine for a moment having someone in your family who can turn your youthful memories into brilliant poetry.
I thought the last song we’d hear from Prine would be “When I Get to Heaven,” the final song on his last album, and that would’ve made perfect sense—to end with one of your all-time greatest songs. But alas, the Prine family has released a short tune, one of John’s last songs presumably (hopefully there’s a lost archive somewhere), and “I Remember Everything” is a fitting second ending. It’s features Prine driving through his old neighborhood, realizing everything that happened there is still vivid in his mind. I don’t doubt that even the smallest detail evaded his watchful eyes. That’s what made his songs resonate with so many people and always will.
4. JEHNNY BETH / “I’m the Man”
5. LARKIN POE / “She’s a Self Made Man”
The women are taking over. We’ve known that for a while, but they’re not looking for equality any more; they want to run the show instead. It’s a thrill to hear two artists take the same theme and approach it in totally different ways.
Jehnny Beth, lead singer for the fierce Savages (hopefully not defunct), has a stellar new solo album out and its lead single kicks down the door and takes the seat reserved for the Chairman of the Board from the get-go with a thunderous pounding beat that Muddy Waters—circa Hard Again—would totally dig. Jehnny has always been a full-force dynamo capable of dominating when and how she wants to and here she shows she can access that power with the flick of a switch. Somewhere beyond the song’s half-way point she seems to trip an internal circuit breaker which acts as a momentary cease-fire to hostilities. But just as the horses settle into an easy gait, as if the previous outburst was all just a dream, she returns with a furious left hook wake-up call. Can’t wait to spend more time with the rest of the record. I’m a glutton for punishment.
While I’m at it, blues-rock duo Larkin Poe, led by sisters Rebecca and Megan Lowell, wail convincingly on their new record, Self Made Man, and the title track flips the sexist “self-made man” trope on its head. “She’s a Self Made Man” begins like a blowtorch is about to be ignited and it only takes a few seconds to realize that some ass is about to be kicked. There have been many other female blues guitar greats but Larkin Poe are right up there with the best of the new breed when its time to bring in the big, stadium-sized crunch. One play of this track will remove all doubt that they can headline any stage they choose with a powerful presence equal to, or better than, any group of dudes.
6. BABY QUEEN / “Internet Religion”
Any song that exposes social media for the shallow self-esteem enhancing/crushing repository that it is is fine in my book, but it’s particularly refreshing to hear a young singer do such a thorough takedown in the confines of a catchy pop song. It’s gotta do some good, right? Baby Queen is not saying anything others (mostly nagging parents) haven’t already said a million times, but youth listens to youth so writing a position paper on how people on the internet can be shitty and have ulterior motives is welcome this time and any other time. This Brit turns her PSA into a pretty damn good pop song while summing up our pathetic “look at me” society and calls out the haters who position themselves creatively on social media while dragging down others down so they can prop themselves up in their wake. Rock on, blue jean Baby Queen!
7. LILLY HIATT / Walking Proof
Songwriting clearly runs in the Hiatt blood and Lilly, daughter of the legendary John Hiatt, has the same instincts for writing lyrics that resonate long after they’re gone just like her famous father. Her DNA has likely pre-programmed her mind to lean just left of center from a lyrical perspective (not quite as “clever” as dad, though), but more and more her sound is doing the same. Right now, she’s easily deposited in the Americana section of the record store, but Walking Proof feels like she may have ambitions beyond classification. She reminds me a little of Rosanne Cash in that regard; both in a genre, and out of sync with it at the same time. She’s not quite to Rosanne’s depth of self-examination yet (this isn’t Lilly’s version of Interiors, Cash’s masterpiece), but there’s no denying her songwriting desires to be more than just another dozen paint-by-numbers songs about love and heartbreak. Instead, there’s a level of detail that makes each song seem personal. “Some Kind of Drug,” both a critique and a love-letter to her rapidly evolving and gentrifying Nashville home, shows she’s a keen observer of her surroundings. “Scream,” the record’s final song, hints at even more depth and evokes the subtle complexity present on album collaborator Amanda Shires’ most recent songs. It has the sound of an artist finding her voice, kind of like her dad did back in the day. His success didn’t happen overnight even though he was a highly respected songwriter. Lilly’s road has been shorter and that makes sense as she's clearly had a great role model. She’ll always be referred to as John’s daughter, but soon people are likely to see she’s got her own perspective and a distinct songwriting voice. With Walking Proof, an apropos title, she’s well on her way to proving she’s something special.
8. MOODYMANN / “Do Wrong”
Moodymann isn’t just dialing my area code on “Do Wrong,” the call is coming from inside the house! Literally. Moody is a house music cult figure in Detroit’s underground dance community and his latest record kicks off with a low riding club track that beds a mandatory heavy bass beat with what sounds like a sample recorded at a local Baptist church (not unlike the approach used by Moby on his bazillion-selling Play from 1999). “Do Wrong” begins with the Moodymann sitting in a high-backed chair in a dark living room—the only light a lit cigarette—as his baby comes home from a night out: “Mmm, mmm, set your purse down, baby,” and you know a lecture is coming next. We find out his girl’s reckless ways have got him back at church looking for a way to reel her back from the “devils work.” Sounds like a great premise for a thumping dance club single to me. Granted, I haven’t been in a club for eons, and even in my prime that wasn’t my bag, but I would love to hear how this sounds at about 500 watts with a subwoofer the size of my car working itself into a hot sweat.
9. ROBERT CRAY BAND / That’s What I Heard
I can’t say for sure, but I sensed my turntable was enjoying herself (you should’ve been at the gender reveal party!) while playing my vinyl copy of Robert Cray’s new record, That’s What I Heard. I have a deep relationship with “my girl” and she simply responds to some records more than others (she's not snobby, just discerning). She really connects with what she perceives to be “the genuine article”—real, unvarnished talent stripped to its natural raw glory. Robert Cray, guitar skills and voice both undiminished by time, is exactly that type of artist. To quote Nick Cave’s “Rings of Saturn,” “This is the moment, this is exactly what she is born to be/This is what she does and this is what she is.” Cray’s new record could act as a persuasive final argument when convincing others to upgrade their audio setup. White ear buds and a “smart” phone simply won’t do here. I digress. So, pleased my turntable was reveling in Robert's deep grooves, I began reading the album's liner notes (written by noted rock critic J.D. Considine) and what I read made my headphones (asexual identical twins) throb with anticipation. Tell me this sentence alone wouldn’t whip you into a froth: “The first time I played the album, I was struck by what seemed to me to be a distinct Sam Cooke vibe to the music.” Robert Cray has been hearing Sam Cooke’s name for years when writers describe his lightly sandpapered soul voice so it’s fitting that someone would want to record him in a similar fashion to the R&B legend. And, as if the planets all aligned at the same time, that’s exactly what producer Steve Jordan planned to do at the onset of recording. He even brought engineer Al Schmitt, who worked with Cooke in the early 60s on such hits as “Bring It On Home to Me” and “Another Saturday Night,” into the studio with him to ensure it sounded just right. Which is why my audio equipment has been celebrating more than usual lately. They’re happy to be transmitting great songs that jump off the record recorded live by a master of his craft. So bring your audio A-game for this one. Don’t make this album stream over some portable speaker. It’s unfair to hard-working sound equipment everywhere.
Note: After I finished writing this, my vinyl copy of Cray's album seemed irritated that I put all the focus on the audio equipment and none on the actual vinyl record itself. The record has released this statement and we’ve agreed to print it in its entirety: “We’re disappointed that the Pickled Priest hasn’t acknowledged the role of the vinyl record in the complete listening experience. Without us, turntables and speakers are just a bunch of plastic, metal, and wires. We are used to being taken for granted, but to gloss over the importance of our delicate and deep grooves in the music translation process is unfortunate and unforgiveable. That said, I’m personally thrilled to hear what Robert Cray and his team have etched into my vinyl and look forward to delivering top quality replays for years to come. We understand that other vinyl isn’t so lucky and the quality level of Cray’s performance will spare me the fate of being sold on Etsy as an aftermarket drink coaster or chip bowl in the future. For that I am profusely thankful."
10. WHAT’S ON THE SHELF? PT. 2
Welcome to part two of “What’s on the Shelf?” As I said last week, I like to surround myself with little things that mean a lot to me and I’ve created shelf space to house many of them. Some I find comforting, inspirational, or pleasing to the eye, but most just amuse me for one reason or another. Here is a continued accounting of those items. From right to left.
CDs – Yes, I still buy CDs. I like to have a physical copy of my music and vinyl isn’t cheap (or easy to store) so I bargain with myself. I think I instinctively know which albums have to be on vinyl and which ones work just fine on CD. And don’t delude yourself, CDs on a good stereo system sound fabulous, way better than streaming. The rest of my record stash is in another room (and the closet, the basement, and any spot where there’s room).
Steel “eyeglasses” bookends – These are weighty fuckers. In a pinch, you could kill someone with one swing no problem. They’re heavy cast steel and they hold up my “heavy rotation” CDs with two pairs of metal spectacles, which are balanced as if resting lightly waiting for a nose to prop themselves on. Don’t try it though. You’d last about ten minutes before your face would collapse from the weight onto your keyboard.
Jeb Loy Nichols’ Country Soul Hall of Fame playing cards – No such Hall of Fame exists, of course, but if it did, Jeb would be the natural choice for museum curator. He’d also be a member someday, if not already. His album Country Hustle would be a good choice to play in the lobby as you waited to enter (I picture a converted church locale). Jeb is also a pretty good artist and this short run of playing cards he created highlight known and lesser-known luminaries from this under-appreciated tangent of country music proper. Among those celebrated in the deck: Bobby Charles, Doug Sahm, James Carr, Steve Cropper, Candi Staton, Tony Joe White, Jim Dickinson, Razzy Bailey, Chips Moman, Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts, Bobbie Gentry, and the legendary Rick Hall as the Joker. These will never be used unless a high-stakes euchre game breaks out.
Bruce Springsteen autograph – This was a gift and I’m thankful and thrilled to have it. The signature is on a scaled-down cover of Greetings, which is a nice bonus. The only thing that could make it better is if I had an amusing acquisition anecdote to go with it. In a way, I wish he had signed this for me in gratitude for returning a stray horse to his stable or after reminding him of a forgotten lyric to “Seven Day Weekend” during an impromptu appearance at the Stone Pony, but as it sits on my wall, I realize a thoughtful gift is better any day of the week.
ABBA Russian nesting dolls – I picked these up from a store specializing in Russian art and, as we all know, nothing is more quintessentially Russian than ABBA, so I was sold immediately. I like that Agnetha and Anni-Frid are given the outer shells with Benny and Björn relegated to the tiny innermost layers. (I’m pretty sure the band didn’t have to sign off on this product.) If you look closely at Björn, the smallest doll, he looks like an extra from the original Planet of the Apes movie from 1968. The catalyst for the eventual purchase were the matching kimonos they would wear onstage sometimes back in their heyday. I wonder if Putin has these on his office shelf, too?
Skull – I’ve had this skull my entire life and it is a cherished possession of mine. My dad made it in art school back in the 1940s (School at the Art Institute of Chicago). We put it in a more prominent place during Halloween and then the rest of the year it resides on my shelf, where is has done odd jobs from holding spare glasses (current use) to my wearing my headphones in its illustrious time in my possession.
Grado headphones - My main headphones are these beauties from Grado. They have the best sound of any headphones I've owned (I am not an audiophile, nor do I want to be) and as luck would have it they look awesome, too, with their trademarked wood accents. I love that they have a strong, thick chord (an achilles heel for me) and sit light on the head for long listening sessions. With an add-on extension I can reach my toilet, fridge, and mailbox (new records!) without removing them. Why interrupt your music with human interaction?
Los Lobos autographed By the Light of the Moon album cover – When LL came to my town for a show I had the chance to go backstage and I prepared, like a little kid going to a ballgame, to meet one of my all-time favorite groups. I picked By the Light of the Moon over other obvious choices because it seemed most conducive to signatures (lots of white space and the guys are spread out in a way that all could sign right under their photo). They all signed (Steve Berlin put his at the bottom, ruining my grand plan, but he's forgiven) and now it holds a prized spot right in my line of sight and likely will forever.
That’s all for this week. If you didn’t find anything above to inspire you, still go out and find a couple new records. Do whatever you have to do to, but you must find them.