Priest Picks #13: Our Weekly Top 10
Welcome to week #13 of Priest Picks. We’re playing some catch-up this week, so it’s all new music this time. We’re rewarding brevity this week. Only one of the albums featured here is over 40-minutes in length. The rest, bless their hearts, are between 20 and 38 minutes. One good thing about moving away from the CD is that artists no longer feel like they need to fill in blank space with more songs that nobody wants to hear in order to provide perceived value. Granted, with streaming you now have unlimited space so you could, in theory, put out an album that’s eleven hours long if you like. And, if this pandemic lasts much longer, Taylor Swift might just get there (more on her later). So, here’s the list, which will take a total of 238-minutes of your time to fully experience.
1. ANTHONY GARCIA / Acres of Diamonds
(42 minutes) This is why I write about music. When I settle in for a listening session on a Friday evening, with a few gin and tonics and my headphones, all I want to find is one more great record. With so many musicians out there no one human can possibly get to them all. I’m someone who spends a lot more time than most tipping over rocks and foraging through debris to uncover great new music, but it’s a never-ending and daunting task sometimes. And I love every minute of it. So, when a discovery like Anthony Garcia comes along, I relish it.
Anthony Garcia, on the surface, is easy to categorize. He’s from Lubbock originally, but has now set up shop in the state’s musical heart of Austin, TX. He self-describes his music as “cinematic Americana” and it definitely has that close-to-the-border eclecticism that informs the music of so many other greats from the fertile Texas music scene. So case closed then: now that we’ve got him classified properly we can take note of our favorite songs and move on to the next artist of the evening. At least that’s what I thought. But as his record played, I soon realized there’s much more to Garcia than meets the eye. His bio tells me he’s a classically trained musician who speaks five languages and has a more diverse set of influences than the standard Texas troubadour. His Bandcamp page references everyone from Led Zeppelin to Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen to Johann Sebastian Bach. My interest is peaked. The first song on Acres of Diamonds, his new record, is “Santa Rosa” and sounds like it would fit on the soundtrack to a Tarantino-directed Western if the subject matter didn’t pull it out of Texas and up to Northern California, “We took the winding roads out to the cliffs/Past Alfred Hitchcock’s church/The hollowed out redwood trees, stacked by the graveyard/Looking over the ocean/I’m gone…” And this is when I know I’m in for something more than I expected. My heart races a little at the discovery. This is Americana, yes, but he’s got a poet’s heart, not settling for easy rhymes and stale subject matter. Then, as if out of nowhere, comes “Apparitions,” and the paradigm shifts. “Apparitions” is a spectacular cosmic explosion of astral nights and galactic days driven by Garcia’s cyclonic electric guitar and Megan Berson’s celestial violin that immediately answers my burning question, “When do the Zeppelin and Hendrix influences start to kick in?” To call it the record’s centerpiece would do it a disservice. It might just be the centerpiece of the entire galaxy for its seven-and-a-half minute run time. And the song is not merely a vehicle to shred for seven minutes. Check out one section of lyrics:
Every voice I've ever heard and every face I've ever seen
Is hanging from the limbs of what they call the Mirror Tree
Branches made of diamonds and the trunk is made of coal
The leaves are made of broken glass and the stories that they told
At the bottom of the ocean in a garden made of tears
It burns just like a constellation that's been dead a thousand years
Neil Peart, eat your heart out. OK, so he’s Americana, he’s a poet, and he can rage on guitar. He’s got the pedigree of Townes Van Zandt and Joe Ely, but he can also pump wattage like Anders Osbrorne? The package has been made sweeter still. Next up, “The Wind,” which shows us that he can play the piano as well as he can play the guitar. It’s a gorgeous ballad that ends with a two-minute suite that explains the Bach influence once and for all. He’s a gifted musician, far exceeding most in his chosen genre. You might expect this record to feature a singer with a gruff, dusty, roadside saloon rasp, too, but Garcia has a smooth, expressive voice that lends itself well to both rockers and ballads. It’s versatile and pure, capable of crossing borders from one style to another effortlessly. From here, every other song introduces some new element not covered in the songs before. “Haunted Hotels” is a movie in words, “My Hands Are My Eyes” is something akin to Americana power-pop, and “For Your Love” is a sprawling love affair set to music. The album ends with the stunning yet simple title track, “Acres of Diamonds,” which, if sung by a bigger name like Jackson Browne or Neil Young or was added to Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars album, would be considered a new classic by raving publications like Rolling Stone. But what about the Leonard Cohen influence, you say? Cue “Jane,” the album’s penultimate track, which miraculously finds Garcia walking down a snowy, wind-whistling path towards the soundtrack of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The song comes from out of left field and hints at what might be to come from Garcia, who has done so much on his debut album, you almost wonder what else he can do to top it next time. I have a feeling we’ve only scratched the surface of his talents on these first nine songs that make up Acres of Diamonds. A great Friday Night Find that’ll I’ll surely be playing for a long long time.
2. COWBOY JUNKIES / Ghosts
(31 minutes) The Cowboy Junkies are undiminished by time. Ghosts didn’t need to prove that, but it does anyway. So did its spiritual precursor from two years ago, All That Reckoning. And the line of succession extends all the way back to the late 1980s, when they emerged from a Canadian church with The Trinity Session under their arms, and as Margo likes say, “We recorded it in seven hours and got a whole career out of it.” A couple years later, when I first saw the band (from the front row no less) they were like nothing I’d seen before and, from left to right, the band’s lineup hasn’t changed since. I’d chalk that up to three of the four members being siblings, but if rock history tells us anything that almost makes it harder to stay together. When you watch the band play, naturally your eyes turn to Margo, for she has one of the best natural voices of any lead singer I’ve ever heard and her presence—incredibly sexy, seemingly enveloped by the music—makes her one of the most galvanizing women in any band anywhere. Her brother Michael, seated to her left, is the band’s creative mastermind, who writes all the songs and is also one of the most underrated guitarists of the last quarter century or so, and quietly drives the songs from the shadows. If you can pull your eyes off of Margo for a few minutes, spend some time watching him work his magic. The rhythm section features Margo’s younger brother Peter on drums and family infiltrator Alan Anton on bass and this band gets nowhere close to the Cowboy Junkies sound without them. We get so wrapped up in chasing butterflies these days—me included—that sometimes you forget our veteran bands in the process. Perhaps we assume their better days are behind them and sometimes we’re right. But I can tell you that the creative spark is still alive and well in Toronto, Canada. Michael Timmins continues to write amazing songs and Margo’s voice—and her entrancing stage presence—is unchanged. One listen to new Junkies classic “Desire Lines” will prove that statement. But then it’s “Breathing” and “Grace Descends” and soon you’re in deep. And once it happens, there’s no hope of getting out. I tuned in to watch a concert of theirs on You Tube recently and two hours later I was still watching. The band has always had an eerie chemistry that is likely genetically sourced. It’s been over 30 years since Trinity Session was released, but the songs on Ghosts stand up with the best the band has ever recorded. It’s a short record released shortly after the death of their mother, and you can feel her spirit coursing through many of the songs. There’s an overwhelming awareness of the fragility of life on the record and to quote the album’s electric centerpiece, “(You Don’t Get to) Do it Again.”
3. ILLUMINATI HOTTIES / FREE I.H: This is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For
(24 minutes) The modern “mixtape” concept was mainly the realm of rappers until recently, but here’s a short one from an unexpected source, L.A.’s Sarah Tudzin and her creative outlet Illuminati Hotties. In truth, and to our disgust, the original concept of the mixtape has been bastardized beyond recognition in current society. In theory, a mixtape used to be a bunch of songs by different artists compiled for a specific purpose (to impress a love interest, follow a prescribed theme, fuel a party, or show how cool you are). There were a lot of rules. Today, it provides an artist maximum artistic freedom and promotes experimentation outside the sometimes smothering confines of record label oversight. Which is where the Hotties enter the picture. The band’s new release, which follows their 2018 debut Kiss Yr Frenemies, is basically a free-form record of EP length with record engineer and producer Tudzin getting all the freedom she needs to do whatever the fuck she wants in the studio. The project’s genesis comes in the wake of label hassles and executive run-ins, so in effect it’s a tweaking of the establishment, which always makes me happy.* So there’s the reason for the record’s odd title and, more specifically, the impetus for “Free Dumb,” which wastes no time making its point, “While the world burns/How could you care about a fucking record?” Add this to the long list of creative responses to record business malfeasance. But if that’s all the record was I might not be writing about it. What really gets me excited is that the resulting music is so potent. From inside her personal war zone we find trace elements of garage, punk, girl-pop, electronic noise, post-rock, and whatever else I haven’t mentioned. That, combined with Sarah’s “anything goes” adventurousness, adds up to a band with creativity to burn. The potential is out of this world. This is still a mixtape, however, there’s some stray experiments, “skits,” and sounds added, but there’s plenty of meat here, too. It may be raw, but it’s pretty fucking great, too.
*I won’t go into the whole story, but Pitchfork did in their review of the record, so pop over there if interested in hearing more.
4. GANSER / Just Look at That Sky
(37 minutes) Chicago is really kicking out some great bands lately (arguably it has always done so, but you know what I mean). Earlier this year we highlighted power-pop bands like Beach Bunny and Ratboys, then later we fell for Deeper, and in the coming weeks we will talk about FACS, but today we bring you Ganser, another band deserving of some time in the local spotlight. But they may not be local for long if Just Look at That Sky is any indication. Led by ultra-cool vocalist Nadia Garofalo and machinist/guitarist Charlie Landsman along with a killer rhythm section featuring drummer Brian Cundiff and bassist/vocalist Alicia Gaines, Ganser churn out fresh post-punk for a world that really seems to need it right now. If post-punk is good at one thing it is capturing the tenor of the times in an abstract way while still conveying the remnants of an actual viewpoint. On “Lucky,” Garofalo spits out shards of quotable lines (another post-punk tenet) like “Thought you’d be more/Thought you’d be OK/Hell of a day, kid/Hell…of…a…day” like she’s channeling Parker Posey dealing out a dose of real world advice to a room full of recent college graduates. Later, she gets darker on “Projector,” “It’s so profound how nothing matters/A climate of catastrophes that’ll never get better.” It’s a talent to make impending doom sound so alluring. There’s no song on the record with a title that screams “post-punk” more than “Emergency Equipment and Exits,” which basically sounds like the band got locked in the boiler room of a factory and decided to make some music while they waited for someone to let them out. And so goes the rest of the record, where there’s never a moment of complete comfort and never a linear path to follow. But the band seems calmly in control despite it all. This is clearly one of those bands you’ll need to see live to fully appreciate and I can imagine it’ll be an immersive experience that will only accentuate what they’ve managed to pull off here. (Album art note: I also like the cover--very Edna Mode)
5. HINDS / The Prettiest Curse & “Spanish Bombs”
(33 minutes) Hinds is an excelente all-girl rock band from Madrid, Spain, who sing in English and rock like American teenagers belting out killer tunes in the family garage. English is their second language, of course, and their songs benefit from the adorable, slightly skewed cadence of tourists trying to negotiate cheap tickets to a Broadway show in Times Square. I think everything they do, for that matter, benefits from being an ocean away from the usual. At times, their songs accumulate so much static energy they default to a little Spanish to complete a lyric or two. I guess when things start moving too fast, it’s just best to fall back on what you know best and hope people understand the context, if not the words. One thing they do understand is how to cram an exuberant chorus inside of a three-minute pop single. The Prettiest Curse is loaded front-to-back with snappy gems you’ll want to crank out of your car windows if you ever get to go on a road trip again. Thankfully, they’ve retained the innocent charm of their last record, 2018’s superb I Don’t Run, but this time they’ve upped the fidelity just so to achieve higher liftoff when its time to launch yet another earworm into space. As an added bonus, they also just released a stellar cover of the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs,” which will likely become part of their encores going forward—and encores they’re going to get. When you think about it, the song’s title describes in a nutshell their entire razón para vivir.
6. POTTERY / Welcome to Bobby’s Motel
(38 minutes) Montreal’s Pottery (name regrettable) have booked an odd assortment of guests into Bobby’s Motel, which I assume is an imaginary place built in their collective imagination where they can book all sorts of bizarre bands into the cocktail lounge. The trick is that all the bands that play there are really just Pottery in disguise. This is a madcap record if there every was one, rushing forward into a funky breakdown one second and downshifting into an extended cowbell solo the next. The album opens with “Hot Heater” which recalls early Talking Heads, and then moves into “Bobby’s Forecast” which evokes the Jon Spencer’s Blue Explosion at their most schizophrenic. It’s one long thrill ride with all the songs running into each other without a break for the full 38-minute duration. Only at the 15-minute mark do things slow down. “Reflection,” which sounds like a late-60s psychedelic hippie anthem, suddenly appears out of nowhere and without explanation to keep you off guard. At this point, I was fully expecting the guys from Ween to walk out from behind a curtain laughing their asses off. Few other bands have been known to morph so completely from song to song. Then, as if that never happened, we’re back full-throttle into the delirious funk of “Texas Drums Pt. 1 & II” which is exactly what it promises—a tribute to the funky drummers of yore, all now apparently living in Texas. I find it’s best if you don’t expect anything to make sense. And why would you want it to at this point? We’re having too much fun as it is. “NY Inn” sounds like Nick Cave fronting Parquet Courts (who they’ve toured with recently). “What’s in Fashion?” sounds like a bizarre creation the Chainsaw Kittens might’ve conjured up back in the mid-90s. And the show goes on. The record sounds like a really wild night in the Bobby’s Motel lounge, recorded live to tape to convert non-believers, and there’s really no explaining how or why it works. Just let it take you over and don’t think too much about it. Strangely, the album ends with a ballad, which kind of makes some sense. As every lounge band knows, you’ve got to play one last slow dance before you send everyone back to their rooms for the night (if you know what I mean) and “Hot Like Jungle” is just what you never expected—as close to a conventional love song as a band like this can get (they’ve also claimed it to be a Springsteen parody of sorts, which makes sense when you listen to it). If Bobby’s Motel only exists in a fantasy then this record is the only way you’ll be able to get a reservation. So book it if you’re up for anything.
7. SPECIAL INTEREST / The Passion Of
(30 minutes) Perhaps the least New Orleans-sounding band to ever come out of the Crescent City, Special Interest could have justifiably named their band The Big Uneasy and it would’ve made sense. They provide a version of punk that’s deranged, industrial, and arty in equal measures. It’s not for the meek or faint of heart, but if your ears crave a thrilling 30-minutes of ear-punishing ecstasy—which mine often do—few bands have put it together in a more convincing fashion lately than Special Interest. “Your eyes are oh so passionate when you are losing your mind” shouts singer Alli Logout (an excellent pseudonym for the modern era) on “Disco III” and she lives the sentiment in her songs, which are sharply written to take down big targets. She’s a dynamic and compelling lead vocalist, she’s black, she’s gay, she’s a punk, and she’s got something to say about queer tolerance, post-Katrina gentrification, racial inequity, and, of course, modern love, all in a hair under 30-minutes. The title of the album tells you what you need to know. These songs are the contents of their collective head and their passionate music is exhilarating and jarring simultaneously.
8. GANG OF FOUR / "Forever Starts Now” & “Change the Locks”
(6 minutes) Gang of Four recorded some of post-punk’s greatest singles of all-time in the late-70s and early-80s, but their legendary guitarist Andy Gill had kept the band’s name alive with a rotating group of mates in recent years. Their last album, Happy Now, was released last year. Sadly, it turns out that album will be their last, for Gill passed away in February of this year. We’re getting small doses of any remaining music left behind now, starting with the February release of the This Heaven Gives Me Migraine EP (great title, taken from “Natural’s Not In It,” one of the band’s greatest songs). The second installment came a couple weeks ago with the four-song Anti Hero EP, which featured great cover art (of Gill) by Shepard Fairey, the artist most known for creating the Barack Obama “Hope” poster. For fans, buying the EP is a no-brainer, of course. The first track, “Forever Starts Now,” is the closest the EP gets to recapturing that classic Go4 sound (original singer Jobn King long gone, replaced by John Sterry). It sounds vital and edgy, just like everything the band touched in their glory days. “Change the Locks” is an update of a song released on Happy Now and proves Gill was writing great songs right until the very end. The two remaining tracks on Anti Hero are nothing earthshaking—an acceptable yet unneeded re-make of “Glass” from Entertainment! and a sappy but moving tribute to Gill done by a solo Sterry. This is one last chance for fans to commune with an artist whose arrhythmic musical heartbeat was responsible for some of his era’s most thrilling and cutting edge songs.
9. CHARLEY CROCKETT / “Welcome to Hard Times”
(3 minutes) Charley Crockett’s entire career could be surgically removed from this era and transplanted into late-1950s/early-60s Nashville and not a soul would question his presence. His entire catalog, album covers included, could be transported and passed off to country music fans with nary a raised eyebrow. Just a little snip-snip around the release year and mission accomplished. Before long he’d surely be hanging at Tootsies with the likes of Ray Price, Moon Mullican, and Roger Miller when not hustling his tunes on Music Row. This is where I make the obligatory comment about his music still sounding fresh despite its retro leanings and we all go home happy. So listen to this jukebox gem and do just that.
10. WHAT’S ON THE SHELF, PART 3
Welcome to the third installment of “What’s on the Shelf?” We haven’t checked up on the shelf since Priest Picks #6, and so many people have inquired about the next segment, so here it is. As previously mentioned, I like to surround myself with little things that amuse me and I’ve built plenty of shelf space in order to store them all. As usual, we’ll go left to right. And once again, thanks to Amy Sedaris for the inspiration.
Surly Brewing Company ‘First Avenue’ beer – Surly is a brewery in Minneapolis and they recently issued a new beer developed in conjunction with First Avenue, the city’s legendary rock club made famous in Prince’s Purple Rain movie. I’ve had some fun in the main club and in their smaller 7th Street Entry adjunct and I also happen to be a sucker for rock & roll-related publicity stunts, so I now have a full 16 oz. can of Surly First Avenue beer on my shelf, which I’ve incorporated into a Prince-related still life I’m working on. More on that in a second.
Minnesota Twins purple Prince hat – The Minnesota Twins (whom I would love if they didn’t ruin my life on the regular by beating my beloved White Sox) have a running deal with Prince’s estate to have an annual “Prince Night” at Target Field. The event has been a boon for eBay it appears as the stuff trades at high prices shortly after the last out is made. Still, it’s a pretty cool artifact that combines two of my loves—music and baseball—and I couldn’t resist picking one up even though it’s way too small for my fat head.
Minnesota Twins Prince commemorative baseball – While on eBay, I also picked up the Prince baseball given away (or available for purchase, I’m not sure) on “Prince Night.” It regularly rolled off the shelf onto my lunch or computer keyboard until I devised a more secure resting place for it.
Mini 60 Years coffee table book – I’m a new fan of the once-British, now BMW-owned, motorcar that’s been around for 60 years now. I got one a couple years ago and fell in love with it. I’d be lying if I wasn’t driven to it after watching both the original and remade versions of The Italian Job, which feature the Mini prominently in numerous scenes. The cars are relatively cheap, quick, fun, sporty, the whole bit. It’s like driving to work in a go-kart, which was kind of the intent from the get-go.
Gas-station money changer – One of my prized possessions. I’m old enough to remember a day when nobody pumped their own gas and you had to have an attendant do it for you. People often paid in cash back then so the attendant would wear this change dispenser on their belt to make the fill-up process a little quicker (the Good Humor man also used one). As a kid, I wanted one so bad that my mom, while our tank was being filled, said she had to use the bathroom and snuck into the station instead to ask the man how to get one. He apparently cut out a tiny advertisement in the back of a magazine (the size of a large postage stamp) and she sent away for one. It came by Christmas and I was so elated to have it I blew a gasket. She even filled it up with pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters! I was in heaven and wore it around the house for weeks, hoping someone needed to break a dollar or a quarter. These days, you’d do a quick search for one and it would be on your doorstep in a couple days (Amazon has them for $35 right now), but back when I was a kid, you had to work to find things and you had to send away for random products sold by companies advertising in the back of obscure magazines on faith that it would arrive someday in the future (requiring 8-12 weeks for delivery for some reason). When I look at my changer, I’ll always appreciate the effort my mom put in to get it for me.
Notorious B.I.G. bobblehead – I never watch the NBA. But one night I stumbled on a tie game late in the fourth between the Brooklyn Nets and another team that plays in the NBA and decided to see how it came out. Apparently it was Biggie bobblehead night that day and someone held one up for the camera for some reason. A couple eBay searches later and I had Brooklyn’s finest rapper ever in my possession. He was born in 1972, so I assume that’s why they gave him #72 on his uni. Cute chubby cheeks, too.
Hippo figurine – I picked this up in the gift shop at the Art Institute of Chicago. It has very sharp, perfectly etched white lines around his body that make his snout look like an archery target. Hence, the purchase.
Booker T & the MGs McLemone Avenue album cover signed by Booker T. Jones – I went to see Booker T play a concert once and I came prepared with the CD cover of the MG’s Memphis soul remake of the Beatles Abbey Road album. I brought a CD cover so I wouldn’t have to lug a full LP around with me all night. Luckily, I spotted him after the show and had him sign. The guy next to me got his original copy of Green Onions signed, too, and ever since I’ve regretted not doing the same. Still, Booker is a hero of mine and I’m glad I got to meet him once.
See you next week with another Top 10 list. Stay tuned later this week for a new feature called “The Pickled Priest Takes On…” where we’ll take on a new album by a major pop star and give it a thorough assessment. This week, The Priest Takes On Taylor Swift’s Folklore. No shit, we’re doing this.
Take care and buy records, not in that order.