Last Wednesday, singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo took to The Ark's stage, joined by his longtime cellist Brian Standefer and keyboardist/harmony singer Sean Giddings as the Alejandro Escovedo Trio. The trio’s performance was part of an ongoing tour to promote the vinyl reissues of his first two albums, 1992’s Gravity and 1994’s Thirteen Years, which were released on Record Store Day last month.
Escovedo likes sharing stories with his audience during his shows, and this show was no exception. He gave a shout-out to his early producer, Chuck Prophet, who he met while working at Waterloo Records and who shepherded him into the Austin music scene. He also shared the story of his young wife’s suicide many years ago, leaving him behind with two young children.
Then he opened the show with a plucky rendition of "Five Hearts Breaking." The cello brought a heartbeat-like sound to the music as a fine alternative to percussion. Next, they performed with rocking fervor Tom Waits’ "Bottom of the World." Jamming to the dark lyrics of "Sally was a Cop;" the singer said it “goes out to Trump”, to which the audience cheered. The poignant ballad, "Rosalie," Escovedo sang about the longing of two lovers separated by thousands of miles. This is a story Escovedo often shares; the two young almost-lovers meet while Rosalie is visiting her aunt in California and the young man so taken by her that he writes her letters everyday for years until they are able to be together again.
Next, they performed "Chelsea Hotel ’78" conjuring punky sounds and images from the Real Animal album released in 2008. The singer mentioned his earlier band, Rank and File which he aptly described as a George Jones & Clash mash-up.
At one point the singer said he was going to make “some Detroit-style noise” and started on some familiar notes to The Stooges’ “Wanna Be Your Dog”...but it was just a tease. Upon playing Sister Lost Soul, Escovedo spoke of the recent losses of David Bowie, Merle Haggard, and Prince. Sheila Escovedo, aka Sheila E., is the performer’s niece, so the loss of Prince was a personal family one.
Escovedo performed 11 songs total with one encore: the rocking "Castanets." To top it all off, he told the backstory of that tune, divulging who it was that he "likes better when she walks away." The night was full of rocking music and great stories and, despite a fairly mellow audience, both Escovedo and his special guest Lucette couldn’t say enough great things about the gem that is the Ark in Ann Arbor.
Beth Manuel is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library and one of her favorite Alejandro songs is Velvet Guitar.
Internationally acclaimed jazz guitarist, composer, and arranger Randy Napoleon will appear at the Kerrytown Concert House on May 15 to play from his new CD Soon, released recently by the Detroit Music Factory. Napoleon, a professor of jazz at Michigan State University, will appear with Rodney Whitaker on bass and Keith Hall on drums.
Washington Post critic Mike Joyce has praised Napoleon’s “exceptionally nimble finger-style [guitar] technique,” and Detroit Free Press critic Mark Stryker cites his “gently, purring tone that makes you lean in close to hear its range of color and articulation.”
A graduate of the U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance, Napoleon is well-known on the New York jazz scene and has performed and recorded with Freddy Cole, Michael Bublé, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and Benny Green.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
The Randy Napoleon Trio appears at the Kerrytown Concert House, 415 North Fourth Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI, on Sunday, May 15, 2016 at 4 pm. Call 734-769-2999 for more information, or visit the Kerrytown Concert House website to make reservations.
The easy sound byte about the Ragbirds’ new album, The Threshold and the Hearth, is that it’s the Ann Arbor folk band’s first release since band cofounders Erin Zindle and Randall Moore had their first child. One might expect more than a couple dewy-eyed reflections on new parenthood, if not an album full of them, but the Ragbirds seem to have their eyes set on bigger things. Structured as a loose concept album about the ups and downs of a fictional couple’s relationship, The Threshold and the Hearth is certainly informed by a newfound sense of wisdom and maturity, but it’s not obsessed with the personal particulars of Zindle and Moore’s very recently changed lives.
In fact, if you’re going to read anything too personal into the album, Zindle kicks things off by asserting her status as an inveterate musician, unchanged by the years. “I was born in a lemon grove with a fiddle / Not a stitch of clothes,” she sings in opening track “Lemon Grove,” naturally backed by a jaunty and immediately catchy plucked fiddle riff. The track builds beautifully, eventually incorporating a rollicking drumbeat, harmonies, and a fiddle solo. For those who know the band, the tune is classic Ragbirds: upbeat folk, in the sense that it features some acoustic, traditionally Appalachian instrumentation and because the music industry requires an easy genre tag for the sound. But otherwise it’s the wholly unique product of Zindle’s world-spanning blend of musical influences and her pop sensibility for a great hook.
Zindle stretches that sound even more as The Threshold and the Hearth goes on. “Cosmos,” with its charming lyric setting up the album’s central relationship between “a cosmologist and a cosmetologist drinking cosmos at the club,” has a funky little guitar and bass riff. “The Curse of Finger Pointing” makes lovely use of kalimba and some African-inspired percussion for a sound straight out of the Paul Simon playbook. And on “Strange Weather” Zindle quietly pours her heart out over a minor-key piano ballad.
This mélange of sounds highlights Zindle’s adaptability and adventurousness as a songwriter, and her lyrics display similar range. Over their decade in action, the Ragbirds have made their name on being mostly a feel-good kind of band, but Zindle contextualizes that positivity more on The Threshold and the Hearth. In “Good Time To Be Born,” Zindle crafts a nicely detailed interaction between a cynical man and a harried young woman in line at a grocery store checkout lane. With empathy for both her characters, she admits “There is always peace, there is always war” while asserting that “Today is a good time to be born / Today is a good time to begin.” And on “Sometimes Honestly” she sings, “I believe in optimism / Secretly I still expect the worst.”
The album’s most downbeat cut, the beautiful “Strange Weather,” chronicles the low point in the record’s central relationship. But even amongst doom-laden imagery, Zindle conjures hope. “If I build a fire to melt the frost / If you stop the winds before they gust / We can save our love before it’s lost / Before we become just rubble and dust,” she sings. The tune ends on an unexpected major chord. While she may be positive-minded, Zindle’s certainly not wearing rose-colored glasses. Her songwriting here reflects a thoughtful adult perspective on love and life that uses hope as a weapon to cut through the rough stuff.
Beyond the band’s songcraft, musicianship on The Threshold and the Hearth is excellent as well. Zindle’s dusky voice is expressive and engaging as ever, although it’s impossible to ignore the equivalent personality she puts across through her fiddle work. Zindle’s brother T.J. is also a standout here, lending warm, occasionally jazz-inflected guitar licks to songs like “Tough Love” and “On Your Side.” Bassist Dan Jones subtly lends weight to a few of the fiddle riffs, harmonizing with Zindle, and Jon Brown and Moore fill out the sound with a versatile complement of percussion.
The Threshold and the Hearth garnered a newfound national distribution push from the Ragbirds’ signing with Rock Ridge Music, and the band enlisted the producing talents of Grammy-nominated R.E.M. and Ryan Adams collaborator Jamie Candiloro for the record. Those decisions seem to have paid off well for the band, as The Threshold and the Hearth debuted at No. 20 on Billboard’s folk chart. And rightfully so. It’s a pleasure to see this band growing up and just getting better, stronger, and smarter with age.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He also believes in optimism, but secretly expects the worst.
The Threshold and the Hearth is now available in physical form at the Ragbirds’ online store and in digital form on major streaming services.
On April 22, 2013, almost exactly three years ago, Saturday Looks Good to Me set up in the Ann Arbor District Library’s Multi-Purpose Room to play a set. It was still almost a month until the official release of their album One Kiss Ends it All, but their performance was full of those emerging songs — Invisible Friend, Empty Beach, Johnny. There were plenty of favorites from their dozen-plus prior years as a band, too — Underwater Heartbeat, Ultimate Stars, and even a version of Everyday that harkened back to their self-titled 2000 debut.
Backbone of the band Fred Thomas captured the performance on a four-track. After lots of fiddling and adjusting and remixing in the intervening time, he came up with a lovely mix.
Now, you can hear the song of the strings, the chime of the glockenspiel, and the saxophone’s warmth on top of intertwined vocal harmonies, and the bass and guitar's back-and-forth in this really special performance.
Stream the entire set here.
Mariah Cherem is a Production Librarian at AADL and has a hard time ever picking just one favorite band or record when people ask her that question.
More albums by SLGTM can be found in our catalog, with lots of EPs, singles and other releases available through bandcamp.
Spring has sprung! Or at least it’s in the process of springing — blossoms popping amidst the drizzle, sunshine peeking out every day or two. Festifools in April feels like a hopeful end to winter in Ann Arbor, but for the last 5 years, it’s been that first Sunday in May — and with it, Water Hill Music Fest — that have made me feel like the warmer season has truly arrived.
If you live in a nearby neighborhood, you’ve likely stumbled upon this happening, but for those who don’t have an address adjoining the festivities, Water Hill Music Fest is worth a little trip. Whether you’re a grownup flying solo (or with a crew) or a family toting along a babe, Water Hill is a homegrown, low-key music festival that pops up in front yards and porches from Sunset to Miller (N/S) and from the railroad tracks up to Brooks (E/W).
Unlike a lot of the music festivals that get all the attention (think Coachella, etc.), Water Hill has a super DIY ethic and no expensive ticket charges. It celebrates making music for the sheer fun of it — with nine-year-olds getting the same sort of stage as the veterans.
Everyone is in close proximity and variety is the name of the game. There are 70+ musical acts playing throughout the four hours of the Fest. You might catch a renowned pianist at one house, and then skip a few blocks over to see members of an elementary school band. No lie, one of my very favorite acts a few years ago was a gale of teens singing songs about citrus fruit. You just can’t get grown-ups with that kind of unbridled enthusiasm!
While part of the fun is just wandering around and the serendipity of what you might happen upon, here are a few acts that you may want to check out, along with handy links:
CHRIS BUHALIS 2-3pm, 600 block of Cressfield
JIVE COLOSSUS 2-3pm, 1000 block of Fountain
APPLESEED COLLECTIVE 3-4pm, 700 block of Spring
WALEED HOWRANI 3-3:15pm, 700 block of Miner
LITTLE TRAPS 3:15-4pm, 500 block of Hiscock
CORNDADDY 4-4:30pm, 600 block of Hiscock
WYCH ELM 4-5pm, 1200 block of Bydding
ACCIDENTALLY HIP 4:15-5pm, 900 block of Miner
HUMAN SKULL 4:30-5pm, 700 block of Gott
Check out the full lineup for times and locations (by block!) here.
You’ll want to plan on parking outside the neighborhood and walking (or heck, take the bus or bike!) into the neighborhood, as many of the streets really become more for pedestrians than for cars. The terrain is pretty stroller-friendly with the caveat that this ‘hood IS called Water HILL. Still, the sidewalks and crosswalk ramps are generally in fairly good shape.
If you’re still feeling unsure of where to go and what to bring, festival organizers have a few tips, too!
Mariah Cherem is a Production Librarian at AADL and is glad that her neighborhood got its moniker from a music fest (and its water-word streets).
Water Hill Music Fest will be held in Sunday, May 1st, 2-6 pm in the Water Hill neighborhood of Ann Arbor. Since it IS spring, and this is an outdoor festival, it’s good to note that there is a rain date. In the case of inclement weather, the festival may be postposed until the following Sunday, May 8th.
Every spring in Ypsilanti, a beautiful community event blossoms. For 12 years now, Totally Awesome Festival has marked the true beginning of spring in Ypsilanti. Totally Awesome Festival is an annual celebration of music, arts, fashion, and pancakes.
The event traces its roots back to Totally Awesome House, once located at 724 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor (now demolished), which hosted the Totally Awesome Supper Club in 2004 and 2005, where one could see local and touring acts and dig into with great potluck food. When theTotally Awesome House-mates were told they couldn’t renew their lease, they threw a festival, the first ever Totally Awesome Festival, to celebrate the music and the spirit of the house, one where anything was possible.
The next year, Totally Awesome Festival II was held to commemorate the first festival and it has been going on ever since.
Most often falling on the last weekend of April, and with venues sprinkled among backyards, puppet theaters, riversides, and other dreamy locations, Totally Awesome Festival is a chance to enjoy the great music that happens all around Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and Detroit. It is always free, and open to all ages, and all species. For the 10th Totally Awesome Festival, the festivities ran for a whole week. For the 11th Totally Awesome Festival, events ran for 55 continuous hours. This year, the festival goes international, with some of the acts performing in Bangalore, India.
This year’s lineup of performers looks incredible and includes, Stef Chura (whose new album is coming out soon), Avery F, Bevlove, and Dykehouse. Totally Awesome Festival’s acts features singer/songwriters, punk, freak folk, neo soul, performance art, poetry, and of course, the annual Totally Awesome Take Home Fashion Show, an outpouring of free clothing curated from Ypsilanti Ann Arbor/Detroit fashion icons. Keep an eye on the public Facebook event as the schedule may change slightly.
So bring your family, bring your friends, bring your goldfish, bring anyone who is interested in music and art and community to this exciting annual event that is unlike any other. Take home some memories and take home some fashion and become part of this Ypsilanti ritual!
Shoshannah Ruth Wechter is a librarian living in Ypsilanti, and views Totally Awesome Fest as an annual holiday that is not to be missed.
The 12th annual Totally Awesome Festival kicks off Friday, April 29, 2016, at 12 pm and runs through the evening of Sunday, May 1, 2016, at venues throughout downtown Ypsilanti.
Emerging musicians and work week refuge come together at Crossroads Pub's Showcase Tuesday. The staples of a local dive bar -- pool tables, retro wall signs -- mix with the Starry Night-inspired stage decor and energetic lighting, creating an open space for live performances. Last week featured two Ann Arbor area bands, Gillie & the Freeman and Once United, who were enthusiastic about playing together.
I had an opportunity to sit down with Once United before they jumped on stage to perform a dynamic array of indie rock songs written mostly by lead vocalist and guitarist Patrick Beger. The core of the trio seemed to be the distinct musical identity of each member. “I just want to play the songs I write with good people," Patrick says. "Being friends first, and not being the exact same type of musician makes us who we are as a band.”
A Michigan native, Patrick taught himself guitar, piano, and drums while growing up on Torch Lake. He joined a friend’s classic rock cover-band, The Breakers, and played shows all over northern Michigan. The experience cemented Patrick’s love for songwriting and performance, encouraging him to move to Chicago to pursue music. In 2013, Patrick came to Ann Arbor to study communications at the University of Michigan and founded Once United.
Patrick started rehearsing with drummer Josh Weichman, a sound engineer for Solid Sound Recording Company, the iconic Ann Arbor studio tucked away in the woods with clients ranging from Beck to The Detroit News. Josh’s keen technical sensibility and resonance on the drums adds a punchiness to Once United’s sound, especially in the song “Trust Me”. While his past musical projects were mostly punk or hard rock, Patrick’s songs caught Josh’s ear. “This is not the typical type of band that I would have joined, but I'm happy that I did," Josh says. "The songs were really catchy. And fun to play too.”
As luck would have it, Patrick found a room in an apartment with Ryan King, Once United’s versatile bass player whose love for psychedelic and prog rock comes through in particular on songs like “Killin’ Time” and “Cracks of New York City”. Along with his uncanny ability on the bass, Ryan is an accomplished clarinetist and founder of several Ann Arbor area bands, including local jam prog band Stormy Chromer.
Ryan: “As a musician, you are a conduit for some feeling or emotion, or spirit, that needs to go through you, or through your fingers when you play, so it's not like we're responsible for the emotion that comes through. It just has to do with our hearts, and our ability to put sound through our appendages and through love.”
Patrick: “What he is kinda describing is the subconscious, which I think is true with a lot of musicians. It's your subconscious coming out, and for some reason you have to express it. I don't know why exactly.”
Ryan: “It's like your spin on the greater collective conscious. It’s like you are a certain tint or shade of glasses, and there's this man behind you looking through it, and what you see is the music.”
This interest in turning the stories running through our lives into song and experimenting with sound is apparent on “The Looper Song,” where electric guitar riffs are mixed live, or “Came to Get Greedy,” an edgier piece. Once United’s captivating hour and a half set proved their range as musicians and treated the audience to authentic songs that capture a simultaneous longing for intimacy and escape -- or, as Ryan put it, “just a healthy dose of human spirit.”
Juliana Roth is a writer currently living in Ann Arbor whose poetry, essays and fiction have appeared in The Establishment, Irish Pages, Bear River Review, DIN Magazine, and other publications. An original film she wrote will be released in 2017.
Once United’s refreshing sound can be heard online at onceunited.bandcamp.com or live at Ann Arbor Brewing Company on June 6th and Chelsea Sounds & Sights Festival on August 4th. Keep up with them on Facebook as they add more shows for the summer.
Last Saturday, April 9th, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra presented an excellent selection of music to a sold out Michigan Theater.
The evening opened with "The Tall-Eared Fox and the Wild-Eyed Man," a piece written by Ann Arbor composer Evan Chambers. Inspired by traditional jigs, the strings section started with a jaunty tone and then transitioned into different breakdowns of the music, ending with an experimental section that pushed the boundaries of the jig into a more traditional and modern place.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, featuring guest violinist Jinjoo Cho, was the second entry in the night’s concert. I was completely caught off guard by Cho’s tremendous performance, which was both technically complex but also emotionally packed. Her playing was simply astounding, breathtaking in the depth of emotion conveyed even as control of the instrument was maintained. I honestly don’t have the words to convey how absolutely delightful and absorbing Cho’s playing was. If Cho ever happens to visit Ann Arbor again, I would highly recommend attending. I will certainly be following her career with avid interest.
After a short intermission, the orchestra returned to perform Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Composed in 1917, this piece explores the character of each of the planets of the solar system, excluding Earth. Each character sketch is relatively quick, resulting in a piece that progresses quickly and holds the interest of even those unfamiliar with classical music. Even if you’ve never heard of The Planets, you’ve probably heard some clip of this influential and popular composition playing in the background of some piece of media.
The performance by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra was a joy to attend. The Planets is a fun suite of music to start with, and the orchestra was clearly up to the challenges presented by the piece. Since the character of each planet is so distinct, I can only praise the A2 Orchestra for conveying a spectrum of emotions and concepts. From the jaunty "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," to the strident and somehow playful "Uranus, the Magician," the A2 Orchestra rose to the occasion and delivered an exceptional range of musical experiences. I was familiar with The Planets going into the concert, and I was surprised at how much of a difference there was between the recordings I’ve listened to and hearing the music in person. There’s a bit of personality or a depth of emotion that recordings just can’t capture. The journey the music takes you on through the solar system seems somehow more real when you’re sitting in the same room as the musicians.
The visualizations paired with the music made for an interesting experience, slightly reminiscent of Disney’s Fantasia. Visual artist Adrian M Wyard created the accompaniment using both NASA images and digital recreations of the planets. Pairing the music with images added a layer to the performance that certainly captured your attention, but that could sometimes border on distracting. I was surprised at how well Holst managed to capture the essence of the planets, particularly those closer to Earth, in 1917, when our knowledge of the solar system was so much more limited than it is today.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library.
**Update 4/18/16 - Big Fun has had to cancel their scheduled appearances for this week. They were intended to appear as part of a panel discussion Monday, April 18 at 7 pm at the AADL, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Eclipse Jazz, and the music of Miles Davis as a prelude to the screening of the film Miles Ahead at the Michigan Theater. They were also scheduled to perform at the Necto in a special pre-screening reception on Thursday, April 21 at approximately 6 pm. This piece has been edited to reflect the cancellation of these performances.**
The baby boomer generation discovered jazz in the late sixties primarily because rock bands of the day incorporated elements like horn sections, the Hammond B-3 organ, hand percussion, Eastern Indian instruments, and funky rhythms into popular music.
Miles Davis became the pivot point in the contemporary jazz of the day, conversely influenced by Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Sly Stone. To reach a wider audience, Davis employed fresh-thinking younger musicians to create groundbreaking jazz fusion music that revolutionized how people thought about jazz; to its detriment for some, but ear opening for many others.
The local band Big Fun is now reintroducing this music to the boomers, and giving young listeners a taste of what this style of jazz still represents. Though a scene in the jazz rock music still very much exists and is technologically evolving, Big Fun stays true to the original concept.
Named after a Miles Davis album of the same name, Big Fun runs the gamut of the music the famed trumpeter created from the late sixties up to the mid-to-late seventies. They are recreating those period pieces from recordings like In A Silent Way, A Tribute To Jack Johnson, the quintessential Bitches Brew, and On The Corner.
Increasing their footprint slowly but surely over the past three years, Big Fun was born out of a concept from music instructors at the University of Michigan who saw a need for this kind of jazz filling a void. Trumpeter Mark Kirschenmann and keyboardist Steven Rush sport plenty of credentials as instructors and performers, but thought it was time to team up and give the public music that influenced their thinking as young players.
Kirschenmann has directed the U-M Creative Arts Orchestra for close to a decade. His electronically driven horn sound employs all the modern laptop, digital pedal, and looped sounds possible, but without losing the soul of his instrument. His style is much more earthy than alien, although deep labyrinth excursions are not beyond his purview. He has also been heard with E3Q featuring his wife, the innovative cellist Katri Ervamaa and percussionist Mike Gould, and with the Jon Hassell-influenced ensemble Electrosonic.
Steven Rush is one of our most ambitious local musical heroes. He directs the Digital Music Program at U-M, leads the band Quartex for Sunday evening worship services at the Canterbury House, and presents various electronic and world music sessions. Deeply into Eastern Indian vocal and percussion, he is equally influenced by Brian Eno, Sun Ra, Robert Ashley, Cecil Taylor, Phillip Glass, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Morton Subotnick, John Coltrane and Blue Gene Tyranny. His personality is as freewheeling as his imagination.
Big Fun has performed at the Canterbury House, appeared during the 2015 Edgefest at the Kerrytown Concert House and recently at Encore Records. They also played the recently renovated Residential College in the famed Keene East Quad Amphitheatre, the building where Kirschenmann teaches regularly. It is also the venue where Eclipse Jazz used to host their legendary “Bright Moments” series of innovative creative improvised concerts.
As a witness to the East Quad performance, it’s easy to say Big Fun pulls no punches regarding the authenticity of the music they are portraying. With healthy doses of improvisation, Kirschenmann and Rush stretch out the music without breaking it. Electric bass guitarist Tim Flood pushes with band with ostinato pulses and a powerful persona that belies his smaller, slight build – he is at the center of driving this locomotive.
Brothers Jeremy and Jonathan Edwards do not so much work in tandem as much as they fulfill crucial roles. Electric guitarist Jonathan has the John McLaughlin sound of the era down to a science. He fills in cracks and enhances the overall sound portrait. Drummer Jeremy can be serene and understated, whip up a whirlwind, play deep pocket grooves or anything in between. Tenor or soprano saxophonist Patrick Booth and hand percussionist Dan Piccolo fill roles held in the Davis bands by David Liebman and Steve Grossman, or ex-Ann Arborite the late Jumma Santos and Badal Roy respectively. Their ethnic underpinnings are as important as Ravi Shankar’s contributions to The Beatles.
Michael G. Nastos is a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is on the Board of Directors for the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
It’s been a while since the world has heard from Ann Arbor’s foremost purveyors of throwback power-pop, Starling Electric. Originating in 1997 as frontman and songwriter Caleb Dillon’s solo project, Starling eventually grew into a full-fledged band, releasing debut album Clouded Staircase in 2006. The band’s psych-tinged jangle-pop drew accolades from national notables like Guided By Voices and the Posies, and Starling became something of a live staple in Ann Arbor and Ypsi. But the band essentially disappeared from the public eye in 2014, when Dillon left Ann Arbor to travel the country for a bit. Fortunately, however, Dillon has returned to Michigan. And with his return comes the long-awaited release of a new Starling record, Electric Company, which has been in the works since 2010.
From track one of Electric Company, it’s an immediate relief to have Starling back in action. Album opener “No Clear Winner” announces itself with the sound of a needle drop and four blaring, distorted guitar chords backed by John Fossum’s majestic drums. Dillon structures the main body of the song in classic Pixies fashion. A quiet verse backed by acoustic guitar and synth accents repeatedly builds to a driving, anthemic chorus. “I don’t know what I control / I don’t know what I can hold,” Dillon sings, articulating themes of uncertainty that have the slightly more graceful feel of willing surrender when backed with music this contagiously bombastic. Dillon cheekily describes the album as “powerless pop,” and the wordplay fits.
Elsewhere, “Permanent Vacation” will burrow itself right into your eardrum and refuse to vacate your brain within five seconds of deploying its simple, catchy opening rhythm guitar riff. If there’s a single on the album, this is it; the bright, polished production and chug-a-lugging rhythm make it one of those songs that demand to be blasted with the windows down on a warm-weather road trip. Another highlight, “Jailbird Joey,” embraces somewhat sludgier production, with Christian Blackmore Anderson’s lumbering bass dominating in the mix. Dillon particularly shows his talent for orchestration on the propulsive closer “Start Again,” which interweaves trumpet, piano, mellotron-generated woodwinds, and some jazzy guitar lines to gorgeous effect.
The centerpiece of the album–both figuratively and literally, at track eight of 16–is “Jesus Loves the Byrds,” a brief but stunning tribute to one of Dillon’s foremost musical influences. The instrumentation on the downtempo tune is simple, but a wistful acoustic guitar arrangement and the quintet’s lush harmony backup vocals make a stellar combination. As Dillon drops lyrical references to “Eight Miles High” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (and likely makes a cheeky reference to the Byrds’ cover of “The Christian Life” in the title), it’s easy to slip into the same reverent, borderline-religious mood with which Dillon seems to approach the Byrds.
However, outside of that one unabashed paean to Starling’s influences, Dillon doesn’t wear his muses on his sleeve as much as usual on Electric Company. Where Clouded Staircase so often sounded like a mixture of lost tracks from the Byrds and Guided By Voices themselves, on Electric Company Dillon has developed a clearer authorial voice. He still loves the Byrds’ riffs, the Zombies’ chamber-pop arrangements, the Beach Boys’ harmonies, and Guided By Voices’ maddeningly succinct lo-fi pop genius. But on Electric Company Dillon synthesizes those top-flight guiding lights into something that’s more distinctly his own. It’ll be fascinating to see where he goes next, but hopefully the wait will be less than a decade this time.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He prefers his pop with at least a little jangle in it.
Electric Company will be available April 15 on Starling Electric’s Bandcamp and major streaming services.