The Due Diligence: Cigarettes and Cynicism Will Only Get You So Very Far

Isaac Gillespie may be an evil mastermind. He looks sweet and unassuming, but I think it’s just a clever guise. You see, I listened to the title track from his forthcoming album with the Due Diligence, I Will Wreck Your Life, for the first time on Friday. By Saturday afternoon, I was walking around my apartment, singing the chorus… over and over again. I try to avoid direct comparisons between bands and songs, but “I Will Wreck Your Life” compares favorably to the Felice Brothers’ instant classic “Frankie’s Gun!” in that it is a shambling good time that makes you want to sing along, loudly, about terrible things.

Also featuring players Alex P, Jo Schornikow, Morgan Heringer, Ben Sadock, Colin Fahrner, IWWYL runs the course from twangy (“Antifolk Song”) to slinky (“Uncle Stephen”) and is a delight all-around with lyrics that can be simultaneously sweet and cynical. Here’s the catch: To give this album a physical release, Due Diligence need some help. They have a Kickstarter program to raise money for a vinyl pressing of IWWYL that is now in its final days. They have a modest amount to go to reach their goal (Kickstarter is an all or nothing prospect), and Gillespie has some clever rewards for backers, especially in the higher dollar amounts (if I didn’t need a Kickstarter for my own life, I’d be aiming at the $300 level so I could hear Gillespie cover the Afghan Whigs’ Black Love), and you could be the one to make it all happen.

I Will Wreck Your Life Kickstarter

I Will Wreck Your Life Bandcamp

Rock ‘n’ Roll Photog: A Few of My Favorite Things: Nerds and Novelty Songs


This is Jonathan Coulton performing at the High Line this past April. He is the uncrowned king of the nerdy novelty song. My iTunes informs me that his genre is “Unclassifiable” which I think is an unusual misspelling of “Awesome.” My personal favorites are Code Monkey, a love song for J. Alfred Programmer; Skullcrusher Mountain, in which a lovelorn mad scientist asks isn’t it enough that I ruined a pony, making a gift for you?; and Shop Vac, a tale of suburban disaffection and despair with a catchy sing-along chorus. I’m also really very fond of his cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back. Those last two might not be all that nerdy but they are a whole lot of fun.

The next song on my list of favorites, MMO RPG by Alex Greenwald (Mark Ronson and the Business Intl., Phantom Planet) – truly a piece of digital ephemera, as it is, for now, only available on YouTube – explores some of the philosophical complexities of on-line gaming:


I will confess I’m not actually all that into computer games – the graphics tend to give me vertigo, and I prefer the low-tech joys of running around in the woods with capes and fake swords and the adrenaline rush when the elves come out of hiding in the middle of an otherwise routine trade conversation – but the song still fills me with glee. I am only sad that the “P” in the middle defeats my attempts to chair-dance to it YMCA-style.

Finally, there’s the song made by a band full of nerds that, on first hearing, I thought was a novelty song, but wasn’t: Teenagers , by My Chemical Romance. The video won’t embed, but you can listen to it here: My Chemical Romance – Teenagers by spatzkiersten

A breather amid the heavier themes of the The Black Parade, this one is for anyone who has ever been baffled or a little scared by their high-schooler, or had the urge to tell anyone to shut up, get off their lawn, and pull up their pants. I enjoy it tremendously, and all y’all should check it out.

— Jennifer

Skip James: Never get down this low no more

It was not Nehemiah Curtis James’, a.k.a. Skip, music that first sparked my fascination with the blues musician from Bentonia, Mississippi. I was skimming through a book I had just brought home from the library, a coffee table companion to the PBS American Roots Music series, when a full-page portrait stopped my hand. The man’s stare was hard, direct, uncompromising. It was a face that revealed no secrets but hinted at stories untold. I was transfixed.

At the time, my familiarity with James was relegated to other people’s interpretations of his songs, namely Chris Thomas King’s recording of “Devil Got My Woman” for the film O Brother, Where Art Though? and the Gutter Twins’ cover of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”. That was going to change right quick.

Born in 1902 on a plantation in the Jim Crow South, Skip James’ overall story is not much different from many of the other blues musicians and “songsters” of his time and place. From early on, he wavered between music, bootlegging and the church. In 1931, he auditioned for local record dealer and de facto talent scout H.C. Spier, who sent James to Wisconsin to record for Paramount Records. James recorded 18 sides for Paramount, a label that was in the midst of collapsing. The recordings were not the hits he expected, and James abandoned his career as a blues musician (though he continued to play in church and for recreation).

In 1964, a small group of blues record collectors initiated a blues “revival” when they sought out the musicians who created the 78s they had obsessively collected. The young, white men searched the South and brought back the likes of Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt and James and took the musicians – some who would be playing the blues for the first time in years – to Rhode Island to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. While the blues musicians would continue to play Newport for a few more years, the revival was no great success for them and many found the opportunities for paying gigs dwindling rapidly. Barely able to pay his rent, James died of inoperable cancer in 1969, his hospital and funeral expenses covered by royalties from Cream’s cover of James’ “I’m So Glad”.

Inexplicably preoccupied with the arresting photo of Skip James, I sought out his music and found myself stopped in my tracks once again, this time by the first song James ever recorded – and what I feel may be the greatest blues song – “Devil Got My Woman”. “I decided,” James said of his music, “I’d try to play something just as lonesome as I could. To try to take an effect.”* James proves to be a master of taking an effect. I have listened to “Devil Got My Woman” numerous times now, and each time, it leaves me with a hollowed heart and a great, pathetic sigh rising up in my chest. James’ high, bereft vocals hang over his sparsely-picked guitar. James eschewed chords, and his finger-picking allows all the space this song needs to spread out and encompass emptiness.


Devil Got My Woman by Skip James


While arguably his best, “Devil” is not James’ only song to telegraph unmitigated sorrow. The feeling also permeates songs like “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and “Cypress Grove Blues”. Even “I’m So Glad”, a song which would appear upbeat on paper with its title and its bluegrass-speed finger-picking, comes across as a statement of irony. And while even James’ lighter fare is great (check out his piano tunes like “22-20 Blues” and “How Long Buck”) it is this skill to give listeners the blues that, for me, puts Skip James above the rest.

*from I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues by Stephen Calt.

Roadtrippin’: Sun Studio

Some people wouldn’t understand. This is not conceit on my part but an observation based on the fact that people were all around, but I was the only one standing at the glass wall, gazing in glaze-eyed wonder. I may or may not have pressed my face to the glass. I was at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and behind the glass was a mixing board from Sun Studio. I was imagining the hands that had turned those knobs and the music that had been monitored through that console. I was transfixed.

About ten years later, driving down Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, I grew giddy with excitement when I spied the huge (and impressively accurate) Gibson guitar sign that now marks the original home of that piece of unassuming equipment I had swooned over at the Rockhall. Walking up to the old storefront studio is a little like stepping into a time vortex for a moment, like straddling an invisible boundary between Then and Now. This feeling is instantly wiped away when you step into the Sun Studio gift shop housed in the adjoining building, crowded with tourists and merchandise, but that’s forgivable enough when you look at the photos displayed on the walls of the artists who recorded at Sun and see things like a reproduction poster announcing a “The Howling Wolf Vs. Muddy Waters” gig ($3.50 advance/$4 door).

At the half-hour, our tour was summoned up the stairs to the museum where a modest collection of photos and artefacts are displayed, and we were introduced to our tour guide, Jason, who was part rocker/part classic deejay/part carnival barker (more about him on NTSIB in the near future). Jason prepped us for our eventual step into the actual studio by giving us a condensed history of the studio (which began life as the Memphis Recording Service where Sam Phillips would record artists and then sell those recordings to labels like Chess Records before he decided to start his own label), sharing interesting trivia (the distortion effect for guitar was born when the guitarist for Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s band damaged his amp en route to the studio and repaired it with paper before recording what is considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, “Rocket 88”) and sampling some of the msuic (Howlin’ Wolf, “Rocket 88”, Elvis Presley’s very first recording). Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston

After viewing Elvis’ controversial, pelvis-swinging television debut, it was time to enter the studio. Descending the stairs and passing through the former office of Marion Keisker, Phillips’ secretary and the first person to record Elvis, I suppressed a giggle as I recalled the Sun Studio scene from Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train in which the tour guide’s rapidfire spiel leaves a young Japanese couple mystified and exhausted. But when I walked into that small, simple, white room, I began to fight back tears. Scholars could argue for ages about where and when rock ‘n’ roll actually started, but I believe I’m safe in saying that if it wasn’t for the events that occurred in that room, NTSIB would not exist. Whether or not the songs recorded there started rock’ n’ roll, they were integral to the evolution-revolution that created the music I love, the music that is sometimes the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. When I stepped into that studio, I could feel the weight and power of that and was overcome in the most invigorating way.

Tour guide Jason continued to tell us about Sun and the great artists who got their start there, but I had a difficult time concentrating as the room itself and the spirit in the room (spirit, not ghosts – that room is alive) monopolized my attention. That small, humble, slightly age-worn room where Wolf, Ike, Carl, Elvis, Johnny, Roy, Jerry Lee and others effectively changed the world.

When the tour was over, I asked Jason, “Do you ever get used to it?”

I didn’t have to explain what I meant.

“Not really.”

Sun Studio Official Website

Obsess Much? : The Black Keys, Rhythm method

When you’re a fan of a band who have more than a couple of albums, there will inevitably be an album in the discography that doesn’t hit you quite like the others. Maybe there are a couple of songs that make you groove, but this album usually gets relegated to the bottom of the pile, given only an occasional spin. You probably even have this with your favorite band, the band you would give blood for. For instance, my excessive-to-the-point-of-being-obsequious apologies to the Afghan Whigs, but 1965 is the Whigs album I pull out the least. Even less than Up In It. There, I said it.

The Black Keys have put out six full albums and three EPs, not including BlakRoc or Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney’s side projects, and Thickfreakness kept sitting at the bottom of my stack. Thickfreakness, their second album and the first released on Fat Possum Records, has some very strong tracks, undoubtedly (and one of the best titles of all time). The title track, “Set You Free” and their cover of “Have Love, Will Travel” are fan favorites, and deservedly so. And their Junior Kimbrough covers are always excellent, represented here by “Everywhere I Go”. But, overall, this album left me feeling uninspired. It didn’t have the immediacy of The Big Come Up and did not yet show the desire to open up their sound and evolve that would begin to assert itself on Rubber Factory. So, when I would put Thickfreakness in the player, my attention would tend to drift off about four songs in.

Then the other day, I realized “I Cry Alone”, the minimalist closer of Thickfreakness, was playing in my head, demanding that I put the album on. This song is essentially all rhythm, with a heavy bass line following closely over Carney’s languid percussion, Auerbach’s vocals providing the melody. This song feels so thick and humid you’d think they recorded it down in Fat Possum’s homebase of northern Mississippi.

After a couple of listens to “I Cry Alone”, I realized there was another song with a great rhythm to it on this album. “Hold Me in Your Arms” opens with a boot-heel drag rhythm that starts out so slow and low that it turns muscle to jelly, only to build anticipation and speed as the song kicks off. As it stands, this sliding drag is my favorite part of this entire album and makes me wish for a collection of songs with this same kind of sleazy, oozing pulse. Hold Me in Your Arms by The Black Keys

Tracking back earlier still on the album is “Hurt Like Mine”, with a see-saw guitar line and a beat that sounds as if it grew like a vine from beneath the floorboards of a run-down juke joint out in some Southern swamp. The sweaty buzzsaw of Auerbach’s guitar requires hips to grind along. If you can’t get lucky to this song, you might as well just barricade yourself in your room now with enough old episodes of Oprah and volumes of Chicken Soup for the Sadass Soul to get you through until death comes to call. Hurt Like Mine by The Black Keys

With this new-found appreciation of Thickfreakness, the Black Keys may be the only multi-album band I listen to who doesn’t have a least-played disc in my rotation, a feat not even accomplished by my most beloved Afghan Whigs or could-do-no-wrong-in-my-eyes Morphine.

The Black Keys will be playing the Nautica Pavillion – with Jessica Lea Mayfield opening – in Cleveland on July 24.

Hacienda: It’s Time to Shake Ya

Hacienda will be playing the Beachland Ballroom on Saturday, June 19, opening for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. You should go see them.

What, you need more than that? My say-so isn’t good enough? Fine, how about this.


Hacienda have shown up on NTSIB a couple of times before, in association with Dan Auerbach, but they deserve a little spotlight of their own. The band is comprised of the three Villanueva brothers – Rene, Abraham and Jaime – and their cousin Dante Schwebel and have been getting good buzz from People With Good Taste (like Hear Ya and Aquarium Drunkard). Their work with Auerbach – he has produced for them and took them on the road as his band for his solo tour – has surely helped them get noticed, but it’s their own talent that’s getting them talked about. If you are familiar with Dan Auerbach’s solo album Keep It Hid, it only takes a moment of listening to understand why Hacienda was the perfect choice for Auerbach’s touring band. They are steeped in a ‘60s garage sound imbued with modern sensibilities and blossoming with energetic harmonies. Stand-out songs include She’s Got a Hold on Me (which I spent half a day listening to on repeat), Shake Ya and Who's Heart Are You Breaking

It promises to be a great show, and I’m personally looking forward to watching Rene exercise those bass-playing chops in person – he’s something else.

Hacienda Official Website
Hacienda HearYa Session
Hacienda Daytrotter Session

Obsess Much? : Dan Auerbach never stops

Okay, in terms of making this Cadillac Sky Week at NTSIB, this may be cheating a little, but since it’s my blog and you can’t stop me…

Dan Auerbach – of Akron, Ohio’s the Black Keys, if you don’t know by now – loves music. This may seem an obvious thing to say about a musician, but it’s more true of some than others. To quote the man himself from his Nonesuch feature page, “I’m pretty obsessed with making music and with recording, I’m always thinking about it. It drives my family crazy. But it’s what I do.” Auerbach likes being on both sides of the recording console and in his “spare” time, he lends his help, and his home studio, to a long list of bands. Here is a gathering of Auerbach-produced songs from bands ranging in vibe from bluegrass to blues to punk.

Cadillac Sky – Nashville, Tennessee

Obviously, we here at NTSIB love these guys and encourage you, again, to pick up their new album, Letters in the Deep, and catch them live if at all possible.

Buffalo Killers – Cincinnati, Ohio

Hacienda – San Antonio, Texas
You might also recognize these guys as the Fast Five, the name they used when touring as Auerbach’s support band on his solo tour. They’ll be in Cleveland, Ohio, at the Beachland Ballroom on June 19 when they open for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

SSM – Detroit, Michigan

Patrick Sweany – Nashville, Tennessee

The Ettes – Nashville, Tennessee

Radio Moscow – Story City, Iowa

Brimstone Howl – Omaha, Nebraska

Jessica Lea Mayfield – Kent, Ohio
Jessica is gearing up to release a third album, and the early word fro
m her brother David is that it is mind-blowing. She’ll be opening for the Black Keys when they play Nautica in Cleveland on July 24.

Ponderous Wank: Music as Identity

For better or for worse, music has become inextricably linked to identity and image. Bands in certain genres are automatically tagged with certain traits by listeners. A “sound” may be attributed to a band based on their geographical location – the Seattle sound, the Philly sound, etc. And skimming through a few band pages at MySpace, one will find it easy to determine the sound of many bands solely from the art and images displayed (tip: if you display individual, name-tagged images of each of your band members accompanied by a photo of the band in a “fun” pose together, you will probably not be mistaken for a particularly experimental or progressive act).

This image tagging trickles down to the listeners and is sometimes forcibly taken up by listeners. Kids seeking their identities will lock themselves in their rooms with music for hours and will often emerge outfitted in the trappings of the music they have found the most relatable to their life or to the life they want to have. Cliques are formed. The punk kids won’t hang out with the metal kids. The hip-hop kids taunt the country kids. The emo kids don’t even come out of their rooms. The outer trappings can become a comfort when these kids begin making forays out into the world. In a sea of unfamiliar faces, another person with green hair or a cowboy hat can be an oasis. Friendships are formed over the fact that two people love one band and can’t stand another band favored by their peers.

As they mature and enter into romantic relationships, people woo each other with mixtapes. A song that a couple has danced together to becomes “our song” and will forever bring memories of that relationship, even long after the relationship ends. Couples move in together, and their record collections meld together. I’ve often said the hardest part of my own divorce was splitting up our tapes and CDs – we sat on the floor with pen, paper and stacks of CDs for a couple of hours, often bargaining with each other to gain sole ownership of certain albums. And everyone has heard stories of a significant other stealing an entire music collection in a messy break-up.

I began thinking about all of this while in conversation with a friend about fear. While I have grown more self-confident as I’ve grown older, I’ve also found it more daunting to go out into the world. I reasoned that part of the problem for me was a drastic decrease in the displays of these outer trappings for people my age. I officially entered my late 30s earlier this month, but unlike so many others in their late 30s/early 40s, I am not looking to settle down and blend into the suburbs with 2.5 kids, a trusty canine companion, a sport utility vehicle, a mortgage and more khaki trousers than any individual should ever own. I still have more black in my wardrobe than any other color. I like platform shoes and big, silver rings. I have a bleached streak in my hair, a visible tattoo and calloused fingertips on my left hand from playing guitar. I don’t see anyone else who looks remotely like me on my semi-suburban street. I don’t see anyone who looks like me at the grocery store unless I go at a certain time of night, and even then, the people I can identify as a part of my tribe are usually a good ten years younger than me. As a result, I feel as much an outsider as I did in high school.

This, I believe, is part of the reason I love music so much and why I become fixated on certain artists. Musicians still display the trappings, the signifiers long after people in the “normal” world have cut their hair and thrown away their band T-shirts (and, of course, many of those musicians are the very reason some of those trappings ever became symbols of identity). I can look at Dan Auerbach in his railroad jacket or Greg Dulli in his all-black wardrobe and see that they are a part of my tribe. Even if we share nothing more than similar taste in music (though, as we’re all from Ohio, we likely share a little more than that), that’s still much more than I share with most people I encounter in “meatspace” on a daily basis.

Music is still one of the most important things in my life, it still drives a large part of who I am. And, for me, music is still a refuge.

Rebirth of the Cool: Grown So Ugly

Back to the blues we go for this installment of Rebirth of the Cool.

The story of Robert Pete Williams echoes the story of many of the great bluesmen: born in Louisiana in 1914, Williams grew up poor and uneducated. He was discovered in Angola prison, while serving time for killing a man, by a pair of ethnomusicologists who pressured the parole board for a pardon. He played the 1964 Newport Folk Festival alongside the likes of “re-discovered” greats like Skip James, Son House and others, heralding the height of the 1960s blues revival.

“Grown So Ugly” is probably Williams’ best-known song, thanks to the next two acts we’ll talk about. Williams had a percussive style of guitar-playing and his singing style could call up the grit of Howlin’ Wolf one moment and the haunting falsetto of Skip James the next.

In 1967, Captain Beefheart brought his Magic Band and his husky yelp to the song and turned it into a jazzy cry.

The version recorded by the Black Keys in 2004 is, essentially, a cover of a cover, taking their cues from the Beefheart rendition. The Keys, of course, add a lot of low end to the song, bringing out a darkness that can easily be overlooked in the original and the Beefheart version.


Royal Bangs: We don’t know shit about cars.

I bumped into Patrick Carney the other day, and we got to chatting about music, as we are wont to do.

Pat said, “April, you have wicked taste in music: you should be listening to this band on my label. They’re called Royal Bangs, and they’re amazing.”

“Well, Pat,” said I, “you have good taste, too, so I will give them a spin.”

Then we hugged, and I returned home to download some Royal Bangs.

This is all true except the part where Patrick Carney and I know each other and have ever carried on a conversation.

(I know I’ve been giving a lot of space to Dan lately, but I think you are way rad, too, Pat. And I usually think drummers are nutbags.)

Both Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach, the Black Keys, have great taste in music, and they use their knowledge and connections to get good music into your hands – Dan with his invitation-only studio Akron Analog and label Polymer Sounds, Pat with his label Audio Eagle.

When you listen to the player on the Audio Eagle MySpace page, Royal Bangs stands out. Not only is their music layered and their playing confident, but there is an urgency that comes up out of their music and drills right under your skin. It infects you, and you feel like you need to burst out of your skin, flying and howling. It is simultaneously delicate and desperate. I won’t say you can’t ignore it, because you might be made of stronger stuff than I am, but you won’t want to ignore it.

Royal Bangs are currently touring Europe, coming back to the States and Canada at the end of April, including a spot at Lollapalooza.

Royal Bangs Official Site
Royal Bangs MySpace
Royal Bangs Daytrotter session
Audio Eagle Records MySpace