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The Rockologist: Digging Through “The Pile”

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So here we are at the end of another year. I’ve fulfilled all of my last writing obligations to Blogcritics for 2007 — the year-end list is done, the final new album releases column for the year is in the can, and I’ve picked my choice for album of the year (which for our regular readers here is probably the worst kept secret of the BC editors’ picks you’ll see here next week — but that’s my own damn fault).

Unfortunately, I’m also stuck at home this weekend convalescing with the mega-bitch of a cold I managed to catch earlier this week. Few things in this life approach the suckitude of getting sick two days before the annual dog and pony show that is the Christmas get-together with the family.

So I’m homebound because I have no choice. I have to be “well” in 48 hours.

The obvious solution to this dilemma of course would be to write about something. But since I’m all caught up for the year and everything, that leaves me no choice but that last resort you turn to only when all other avenues have been exhausted. I am referring of course to that final refuge for critics of both the blog and professional varieties alike:

Time to dig through “the pile.”

For the uninitiated, “the pile” is both the friend and the scourge of music writers everywhere, just as I imagine it is for those who write about books, movies, or anything else where a professional opinion is sought. You see, one of the coolest things about writing is all of the free stuff you get. Basically the way the deal works is labels, publicists, and such send you free stuff in the hopes that you will write about it — and preferably write something positive.

The upside is of course, that you get this free stuff. The downside is that it is inevitable that some of it — for whatever reason — is going to fall through the cracks. The biggest reason for this would be the surprising amount of said free stuff that comes completely unsolicited.

If I want to write something about the new album from Springsteen or Arcade Fire for example, most often I have to ask somebody for it (and even more often than that I just end up buying it). On the other hand, if an indie label with a hot new band or artist wants to get their CD reviewed, they will often just send a copy, accompanied by a press bio (and these days a link to a website with downloadable music), sight unseen.

If you get a lot of this stuff, there is simply no way humanly possible that all of it is going to get written about — as nice a guy, who is willing to help out most developing (read: struggling) artists, as I like to think of myself as being.

Hence, “the pile.”

There is also the none too insignificant “suck factor.” The law of averages simply dictates that if you get sent a fair amount of new music over the course of a year, a certain percentage of it is going to suck. In these type of cases, writing a bad review runs you the risk of pissing off an important contact. They may be feeding you the Dogshit Blues Band or Farting Satan’s Cavity this week — but next week it could be the next Dylan or Radiohead. And don’t think they won’t remember that diss you wrote when they reached out in good faith.

Right about now, I should also point out that none of this is as bad as I’m making it sound here. Although it seems like about one hundred years ago now, your ever-jaded sounding Rockologist still has very vivid memories of my initial reaction when I first learned I could get free music by writing about it.

I was writing music reviews for my high school newspaper when someone first suggested this to me, and I simply couldn’t believe it. I was so singularly obsessed with music at the time (and probably still am to a greater degree than I’d like to admit), that the thought of someone giving it to me for free struck me as the single most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. As for the thought of actually getting paid to do it? Simply impossible (unfortunately, I found out later on in my adult life that I was actually more or less right about that part).

Which brings me back to “the pile.” I haven’t actually gone through the roughly three foot high stack of CDs that sits atop my CD storage area — just above the hip-hop section, and slightly to the left of the boxed sets and the jazz — in about six months.

The thing that is always the most fun about the semi-annual ritual of going through “the pile” is finding the surprises. It might be something you looked at when it first arrived, and just kind of shrugged off. Or it might be one of those albums that ended up there completely by mistake, and that you had every intention of checking out.

My personal favorites are the ones where you go “how the f–k did that end up here?” or “I’ve been wondering where that CD went.”

Son of Skip James, the new album from Dion DiMucci (or just plain ol’ Dion as he is more commonly known) is a perfect case in point. Few artists today can claim the rock and roll pedigree of Dion, that are also going anywhere near as strong. As such, I’ve always respected him as being one of the greats, from classics like “The Wanderer” up about through “Abraham, Martin, and John.”

But like so many artists from his original era (fifties and sixties mainly), I’d kind of lost track. The last I had heard of Dion, he was supposedly doing the Christian music thing, for which I just kind of figured amen brother, and more power to him. To my utter surprise, what I found is that on Son Of Skip James, Dion has actually re-embraced his roots in the blues, paying homage in an album of sparsely arranged covers by everyone from Dylan to Elmore James to Robert Johnson to — of course — Skip James. There are also a pair of fine originals here in the title track and “The Thunderer.”

One of our more promising new writers here at Blogcritics actually wrote a wonderful piece on this album a few weeks back that I really don’t have a lot to add to. You can read that great piece by the Blues Blogger for yourself.

Moving onward through the pile, we next arrive at The Returning Sun, the new album by Cy Curnin. For those of you old enough to think that name sounds a bit familiar, you would be absolutely correct. Curnin is the former singer/songwriter for the Fixx, a band that was briefly so hot in the eighties that not only did they score an impressive string of hits, but Curnin was also sought out as a producer for the likes of Tina Turner. So the thing that first struck me about this album was the way that songs like “We Might Find It” and “Remember Me When I’m Gone” have that same pop bounce (and signature guitar sound) of those old Fixx records like “Saved By Zero.” Which in this case is definitely a good thing, as Curnin clearly still understands the importance of a great pop hook. Far from being a mere “whatever happened to that guy” story, the songs on this record sound as fresh now as the Fixx did way back then.

In addition to continuing to play shows with the Fixx, Cy Curnin is also one of the few people on the planet who can claim to have climbed Mt. Everest. This one was an unexpected, but very welcome surprise.

Any album with lines like “Pass me the lampshade, I’m drunk again,” and “If I’m a bad drunk, it’s not for lack for practice,” is going to instantly score a few points with the Rockologist. And on How To Make A Bad Experience Worse, singer/songwriter Mishka Shubaly does exactly that.

On this album, Shubaly steers the listener through a series of similar hard luck stories, many of which seem to take place either during a spectacular bender, or in the hazy afterglow of the next day’s hangover. Which on the surface would make Shubaly a prime candidate for the latest drunken novelty act, if only the songs themselves weren’t so damned good. Shubaly veers here from the Link Wray-like bluesy vibrato of “The Only One Drinking Tonight” to the fuzzed out garage-rock of “Ghost Of The Girl” to the Ryan Adams-like twang of “Took You In My Arms” with ease. There is also an authenticity about these lyrics that suggests he really has lived it — although the songs sound too good to simply dismiss Shubaly as just another drunk with a guitar. Definitely the best new discovery of this particular dig through “the pile.”

Oh, but wait a minute. ‘Cause here comes Kasey Anderson, and right off the bat this is some really dark sounding shit. On the title track of The Reckoning, Anderson comes storming right out of the gate with a spoken word, stream of consciousness poetic sort of thing that finds his gruff voice — think of a cross between Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits — standing way out front of a fuzzed out, borderline metallic guitar driven backing track.

So far, so good. Like with the Shubaly disc, there is some first rate songwriting here (where have they been hiding these guys anyway?), while musically this veers from folky Americana, to bluesy twang, to borderline beat poet stuff. While The Reckoning often mines the seedier underbelly of America, on songs like “Don’t Look Back” and “Long Way Home,” Casey Anderson shows us that there is some real beauty underlying that particular darkness. Great, great stuff here.

So on tonight’s dig through “the pile,” we’ve scored a rather unprecedented four out of four, with the two new guys actually being the most pleasant surprises of all. Most amazingly here, nothing sucked.

I may just have to start digging through this damn pile a little more often.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Does your pile include volumes 22 and 23 of the Ethiopiques series of authentic music from Ethiopia?

    I will check these out someday…someday.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    barring those two, how about Ethiopiques 20: Live in Addis, which features the Either Orchestra?

    woah, this has to be the weirdest thread hijack ever.

  • http://thebluesblogger.com The Blues Blogger

    Thanks for the plug … Merry Christmas and all the best in the New Year. This site is a pretty cool place to hangout and I appreciate all of your support. The creativity, team spirit and even goofy hijacking I enjoy a lot …

    Cheers,

    -The Blues Blogger