Friday, March 21, 2014

Greg Smith and The Broken English

The last couple of years during Couch By Couchwest I was introduced to some great music - and people - from Brooklyn NY. Among them were Matthew and Livia as The End Men and Uncle Leon and The Alibis. Both Brooklyn bands - but distinctly different musical styles and influences.

Recently, another Brooklyn group - with yet another style - hit my radar - Greg Smith and The Broken English (web | Twitter). Ready for spring? If so, many songs from their upcoming release, Ramblin' Roads will put a spring in your step.

Slated for release on April 8, the album is collection of really good songs with a solid diversity of instrumentation. Guitar with a slide. Bass raised to right level in the mix - as are the various elements of the drummer. Acoustic, electric, keys, mandolin, harmonica, ♫ whistling ♫, percussion shaker thing, brushes, etc.

I'm as guilty as anyone about asking "So who do they sound like?" when told about a band with whom I'm not familiar. On the one hand, I'm personally looking for some creativity vs. copying someone else. On the other hand, its more difficult to explain to someone why they should listen and enjoy if you can't label an unfamiliar artist. So while its tough to nail down a specific "sound" by the band, I do hear what seem to many influences such as Ray LaMontagne, Dylan, and The Jayhawks. The 13 songs include a nice mixture of rock, country, and pop sounds as well as fast-paced rocking numbers followed by tender but not trivial ballads. 

After having grown up in western Massachusetts, Smith relo'd to the southern borough of NYC. His compositions reflect a balance of growing up in a rural part of a state and adjusting to life in Bright Lights, Big City.

On most of the songs, Dayna Webber provides wonderful harmony to Smith's lead vocals. In a couple of spots, her harmony along with others in the band almost remind me a Stones prime era when harmonies truly complimented lead vocals vs. competing with them.

I really like that the album sounds like it was recorded as a band - not just a featured front man singing lyrics over a polished yet muted musical track recorded by session stalwarts. The album opens with three strong tracks - musically and lyrically - with Ain't That Bad, Whiskey Breath and Cigarettes, and Living Like A Joker.

Ain't That Bad
Oh heaven help me, I know I ain’t that right
I got a bomb inside my head
And a fire in my heart burning bright
But it don’t shine no light
Its hard to recognize the truth in a world full of lies
Take me back in time
Before the good book was written by design
When all a man would do to clear his mind
Was take a walk, say a prayer and goodnight

Whiskey Breath And Cigarettes
Playing Pot Head Blues in Converse shoes
nuff said

Living Like A Joker - This song caught me from the jump. I loved the early solid groove and vocals. But when the rest of the song climbed aboard, the full sound had me wanting the song to continue as a 10-minute jam session.

Hey, What's The Use - This one is written as if it may be the most personal song of the album. One can feel the tug of staying near home while tearing away to dig the dream elsewhere.

 Son, I hope you're doing fine down in the city, life must be sublime
I couldn’t take it there, all the cars and people everywhere
I hope to see you soon.
Back on the farm sometime before the next blue moon
Mom, I’m tryin' hard to get somewhere, I’d like to help you there
I work my fingers to the bone
I sing my heart out till my blood runs cold
The hope inside my veins don’t stop from bleedin'
Every single time it rains

Losing Hand - OK, so its a video with too much crowd chatter. But that's not the fault of the band or the song!

Nowhere Left To Hide
Sing it again - Like kids at play on an old tire swing
Bring it again - Everything we knew ever since we did
Get lucky again - Let the dice roll down a road of sin
And sing it again - Till there's nothin' left to win.

Way Back Down - I really like this one! Staccato diction to lyrics without being rap. The song's drum and guitar opening reminded me a bit of Robert Earl Keen's Shades of Gray but the pace of singing then reminded me of Todd Snider's Incarcerated. Yet the song has absolutely nothing to do with either. Make sense? Yeah, I was afraid you'd say that.

Oak n' Ashes - Possibly my favorite track from the album. This is the one where I seem to hear an influence of The Jayhawks. A harp openin' almost always kills.

City life and the tricks they deal
Keep me up all night like a spinning wheel
I ain’t fixin’ to hold up here
I might be broken down but I’m still shiftin’ gears

Like oak before the ash, strike before the gold
Throw my whiskey in the trash, I won’t need it anymore
When I sing this song about you and hope that I ain’t lost
The place where I came up, before the road that I have crossed

Little Darling - Dayna shares lead vocals on this tender one.

Play Like A Little Girl - One of the 'poppier' tunes from the album and one that contrasts well with other styles of the remaining songs.

Spare Me Eliza - The closer

Top to bottom, Ramblin' Road is going to be fun one to listen to repeatedly. I'm really pleased too that the band performed twice at this year's Couch By Couchwest.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Couch By Couchwest 2014

The longest running on-line music festival is back! Starting Sunday, March 9th and running through next Saturday, the fourth annual Couch By Couchwest extravaganza will have the interwebs buzzing with excitement ... and well, buzzed at times.

CXCW's strengths are its varied simplicity of participating and diversity of music offerings.
  • Rather than travel to any hyped festival destination, you get to enjoy the music from wherever you want - your couch, hotel room, local coffee shop, favorite drinking establishment, porcelain throne, airport terminal, front porch, back deck, tree house, tornado shelter, etc.
  • No need for an admission wristband, and no worries about trying to be at two or more places at the same time. The venues and stages are open 24/7. Visit CXCW's website, and enjoy videos of performers whenever you want and as often as you want. Even when CXCW ends next Saturday, the site and its videos will continue to live - kinda like a bad rash.
  • Oh yeah! The performers. You'll likely find something to like - probably lots of somethings. Funny, serious. Rock, bluegrass. Individuals, bands. Twang, somber. Fast, slow. Well known artists, unsigned treasures. 20-somethings, old farts, and young'uns. LoFi videos, scenic vistas, and umm, err exploding things.  
Credit: @magearwig from Bucket Full of Nails
Over the last three years, CXCW has introduced me to many great new artists and their music. I've long been one to continually dig for new diamonds-in-the-rough, and this forum annually surfaces many great ones.

A PSA if I may though. The admins for CXCW will do an incredible yeoman's job (except probably for their intern) of sharing hundreds of videos the next seven days. In addition, they'll pass along pictures of kids, pets, tacos, waffles, couches, significant others, bars, etc. Believe me, everyone is assured of having fun. But at its core, CXCW is about its performers and their music. If you find someone you like, take it further.
  • Buy a download through the performer's or band's website, iTunes, Amazon, etc. 
  • Keep tabs on touring schedules and see your new fave when they come through town. Introduce yourself - the CXCW connection is a great cold open. 
  • Perhaps buy merch from them.
  • Support a new Kickstarter campaign.
  • Follow them on Twitter, like them on Facebook, become a fan on ReverbNation, etc.
So grab a brew, a bag of chips and the electronic, internet-enabled device of your choosing (at least one that has a web browser) and join in the fun.

Twitter: @couchxcouchwest
Facebook: CXCW


Monday, March 3, 2014

Eric Brace: There's GOLD in them thar songs

A decade-plus ago, Eric Brace relocated from Washington DC to East Nashville by-cracky Tennessee. Forget the Tennessee Titans or Nashville Predators professional sports teams. Brace's relo is arguably one of the top yet understated free agent acquisitions for the city in the 10-12 years.

On his Nashville-formed label, Red Beet Records, Brace has released a limited number of tremendous albums primarily for himself as a solo artist and duos with songwriter and The Tennessean writer, Peter Cooper.

Recently, Brace and Karl Straub released an interesting collaboration based on the mid-1800s California gold rush titled, Hangtown Dancehall. Many riches were reaped during that brief era, and many stories became legendary - even if many would never pass today's Snopes test.

Those few years also resulted in immense hardships and strife. Folks came from across the continent for a fruitless attempt at hitting it big. The few dollars people brought with him to survive their search disappeared without replenishment. Relationships thought to be rock solid at the beginning of a long journey to California dissolved like a fart in the wind when muddy panning came up empty.

Hangtown Dancehall was crafted from a folk song of the era named Sweet Betsy From Pike. Two youngsters from Missouri, Ike and Betsy, traveled the long, hard road with a golden gleam in their eyes. Yet as a good folk song should do I suppose, the twosome fizzled out in Hangtown when the stress of the search becomes too much.

The backdrop for the album - though this version is not from Eric and Karl.

Brace and Straub picked up where Sweet Betsy left off, and in the words of Kenny Bania...

Brace and Straub created a musical - a folkie drama if you will - with various vocalists playing character roles in the album's songs. Vocals are contributed by a variety of singers including Kelly Willis (married to and performs with Bruce Robison), Tim O'Brien, Darrell Scott, and Jason Ringenberg (Jason and The Scorchers)

Brace's recording and marketing of the album on his terms from the east side of the Cumberland rather on Music Row gave him many freedoms and opportunities to explore. The album includes 22 tracks. Some are as brief as 30 to 45 seconds. On the high end, a couple flirt with the 4 minute mark. From beginning to end, however, I'm not sure an individual track stands out as one that can easily be separated from the whole - and that's a good thing.

The one exception may be I Know A Bird released previously a few years ago by Brace and Cooper on their album You Don't Have To Like Them Both. Brace wrote the song with the gold rush in mind, but I'm only guessing he wanted the song to eventually be part of a larger storyline.

The album is truly a pleasurable listen. Envision for a moment about the dreams as well as the challenges of traveling cross-country 150 years ago in the search of gold - or in today's era of foolishly chasing can't-miss celebrity stardom. Many of those ideas have likely been captured in one of the songs. Some examples include:

Pretty Girl In Missouri
They left him lying there, they ran away that night
Betsy cried about her daddy blood so red, skin so white
They left for California, across the open plain 
Maybe they'll dig up the gold and bury all the pain

Gone To California
Gonna cross the big wide prairie
Gonna climb that hill
They got gold there bigger than boulders
Gonna get my fill

If You Don't Know Me
I heard you call me "a faithful friend"
Ike, I was talking 'bout the dog
And I heard you say that I smell pretty bad
Ike, I was talking 'bout the dog

Life Story
If there's gold still on his person 
It would be a sin to leave it in the dirt
When our church still needs new windows
And a pile of new Bibles couldn't hurt

They emptied out his pockets
But I doubt they searched the lining of his coat
While I'm checkin', I'll refer to you
The golden words of truth that St. Paul wrote.

Hanging Tree
I didn't have to wonder what I'd done
I'd killed a man and I'd been hung
When I awoke I was so cold 
I'll be hanging soon
I killed a man for gold

Taking in the artwork and absorbing the lyrics are needed in addition to simply listening to the songs. After buying the music, visit for the latter. The storytelling by Brace and Straub through their concept and lyrics is a rarity in today's 3-minute singles, iTunes download, music consumption generation.

Red Beet Records:
Twitter: @ericbrace
YouTube: redbeetrecords