Song Premier: Cloud Caverns’ “The Eleventh Hour Effort”

“We were always waiting for the shoe to drop,
Here it is.”

Chattanooga’s Cloud Caverns has been crafting intimate, progressive folk for the better part of a decade now. Manned by Brandon Peterson, with intermittent friends lending assistance, the project has three full-length albums under its belt. More recently, Cloud Caverns has been releasing singles in anticipation of a new new full-length album.

Never shy to the discomforts of political corruption, disillusionment, and the the simple (yet unrelenting) pains of life, Peterson pens visceral songs that are poetic without being esoteric: they’re songs that frame the common threads of life in a way that manage to make something beautiful out of a reality that is often harsh.

We’re excited to debut Cloud Caverns’ latest single, “The Eleventh Hour Effort”. It’s a particularly timely song given the current health crisis. While the song’s lyrics speak of a house literally collapsing, it’s a state that many of us are experiencing emotionally. We are inside the house, it is sinking, and we’re not sure what to do. But the song is not prescriptive, instead slyly remarking, “That’s just life, is that right?”

All of this is juxtaposed against an otherwise upbeat sonic landscape, with prominent use of flute-like synth tones. It’d be easy to lose the serious undertones of the lyrics with a casual listen. It feels warm and playful, a nice change of pace for a project known to oscillate between intense alt-rock and spacious acoustic arrangements.

Check out “The Eleventh Hour Effort” below:

The Eleventh Hour Effort by Cloud Caverns

Review: Random Desire, by Greg Dulli

The new Greg Dulli solo album is the creative culmination of a 30-plus year career.

FFO: Greg Dulli, Greg Dulli, and Greg Dulli

Random Desire is billed as Greg Dulli’s first solo project. Even if you ignore the fact that Dulli already had a solo debut in 2005 (possibly a technically , since it was released as quote Greg Dulli’s Amber Headlights end quote), Dulli’s bands—the Afghan Whigs, the Gutter Twins, and the Twilight Singers—were always driven by his singular creative vision. His bandmates played important roles, but they were always in service to whatever muse Dulli was following at the time. If Dulli is fronting a band, it’s going to sound like his project, period.

After “reuniting”* the Afghan Whigs in 2011 and releasing two albums (2014’s good Do to the Beast and 2017’s excellent In Spades), Dulli found himself in need of a creative outlet as the band again went on hiatus.  Random Desire is that outlet; inspired by Prince, Todd Rundgren, and other one-man-bands, Dulli wrote, played, and recorded the whole album himself (save for some guest spots from his pals). While there’s a slapdash quality here as a result, the album is still the most diverse release in Dulli’s career, revisiting almost every creative detour he’s taken while venturing down the occasional new path.

*more like adding an original Whig member to the Twilight Singers line-up

One of the most fascinating things about Dulli’s creative output over the years is that as his songwriting accumulated new wrinkles, he’d take those elements to his next project and continue building. So while the Whigs started off as a loud college rock bar band with serious ’60s R&B/soul undertones, they kept expending, ladling in more and more nuances. And then the Twilight Singers added a dollop of electronica and sunny indie rock. And the Gutter Twins folded in some late ’80s Nick Cave vibes. Random Desire keeps with this trend, as all of these elements swirl and slosh around. Some songs, like the glorious “The Tide,” revisit touchstone points (in this case, Black Love-era Afghan Whigs, with a huge upswell of guitars, piano, and Dulli’s howl). Other tunes try some new tricks, like opener “Pantomima”—it’s maybe the single most joyous-sounding thing Dulli has released. And “Scorpio” slinks along with a sexy vibe that’s carried by a trip-hop backbeat and some impressively syncopated verse vocals from Dulli.

If Random Desire suffers, it’s mainly from the limitations of keeping this to a one-man affair. I’ve always found Dulli an underappreciated musician, a true jack of all trades whose musicianship was always eclipsed by his huge on-stage persona. But while a more-than-capable multi-instrumentalist, Dulli’s playing never strays far from what he’s done before. The same can’t be said for his vocal performance—Dulli’s raspy yowl aims for some sultry low notes that are far out of his range. It’s endearing, but still a bad fit for the album. And it’s also not helped by the thin-sounding production; Dulli might’ve been shooting for this early Prince aesthetic, but it doesn’t mesh well with the anthemic swells that frequent his songs.

Random Desire is also the most lyrically diverse of Dulli’s career. Dulli’s songs have always been about the brooding and self-destruction that comes with passion. But here, he seems to take a step back and look at the sadness, joy, and peace that comes from relationships (or, like in the album’s standout “Marry Me,” broken relationships). It’s still Dulli, but this is the most mature he’s ever sounded (or, his persona has sounded, if there’s any actual difference between the two).

Clocking in at a mere 37 minutes, Random Desire covers a lot of ground in a little time. Even with its limitations, the it’s the most true sounding recording Greg Dulli has ever released. Maybe that’s why it’s being billed as his first solo album.

Our Rating: 7.9 (Stand Out)

Random Desire is out now on Royal Cream/BMG.

Review: Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 allows listeners access to someone else’s unfiltered consciousness while also allowing them to make of it what they want.

Much has been said about Mark Kozelek, good and bad.  From his slow-core days as front man of the Red House Painters in the 90s, to his rebranding as a folk-rock singer song-writer with Sun Kil Moon in the early 00s, to his resurgence of popularity with the release of his 2014 masterpiece Benji, there has been much artistic evolution and a fair amount of personal controversy.  Kozelek is one of the few artists whose evolution has been almost totally transparent through his art, while still being almost entirely reclusive from the media and interconnected cyber-world.  The lyrical content of his work has always been intensely personal, whether in the sparse poetry of his early work or his new, diary entry, sing-songy-spoken-word that he has adopted over the past five years.  During this time his musical output has nearly doubled, often releasing two or more projects every year, whether as Sun Kil Moon or solo collaborations with other artists. 

His latest release is Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2.  As the title implies, Kozelek has collaborated with these musicians before; this is the sequel to their first collaborative album from 2017.  On the surface, this record is no different from any of his releases since 2015.  The songs are long; all of the seven tracks are over eight minutes, with the full track list running to an hour and eighteen.  There are no choruses or hooks, and little in the way of conventional song structure at all. 

Instead, Kozelek and co. present an immersive, hypnotic world of lush piano parts, uneasy drum patterns, and harmonic guitars, all featuring Kozelek’s voice floating masterfully overtop.  It is feels appropriate to describe this album as a short-story collection in musical form.  Although he delves into spoken-word passages occasionally, the vocals are always subtly melodic, flowing easily along with the music.  The amount of detail and care that was put into the arrangements makes it clear that these are not simply backing-tracks made to be played in the underneath someone talking; these are songs that double as stories.  Kozelek has gone so far as to publish the complete lyrics to every song he has released from 1992-2019 in two volumes via his label Caldo Verde, demonstrating the importance of the lyrics to his art as being significant enough to form a body of work on their own.  It is clear that the music and lyrics are of equal importance here and in his whole discography, intermingling to form a mesmerizing world of sound and unfiltered thought. 

 What makes this album stand out from others in Kozelek’s discography is the musical world it presents.  Unlike the muddy This Is My Dinner or relatively sparse I Also Want To Die In New Orleans, the level of detail makes it possible to pay attention and be intrigued the whole way through.  Each song features multiple movements that are tied together by musical and lyrical motifs that appear throughout, keeping them from feeling like directionless experiments and free-association exercises.  Koz often breaks the fourth wall by talking about his own song-writing process, with lines like, “I find poetry in everything,” which typed out here out of context sounds incredibly pretentious, but comes across as sincere and true within the album. 

There are moments of hilarious instrumental and lyrical quirks as well.  On the middle track, “Chard Enchilada,” Kozelek spends each verse talking about underdogs who have to work harder to get ahead in life than others.  One such person is the bassoonist, who’s supremely un-cool instrument makes it difficult to find success in the music industry (spoiler: there is a bassoon solo right after the verse).  During the last track, he abruptly stops his musings to ask someone in the studio if he thinks the album is over eighty minutes yet, to which he replies, “um, I’ll have to check . . .”  It’s a comical moment of self-awareness. 

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 allows listeners access to someone else’s unfiltered consciousness while also allowing them to make of it what they want.  For me, there is usually one take-away that I get from these records, one phrase or verse that sticks with me when it’s all over.  This record’s moment comes at the end of the closing track as Kozelek narrates the experience of answering the studio door to find some evangelists from The Church Of Latter-day Saints.  He tells them, “Hey, this ain’t my cup of tea, but you showed up at my door to talk to me.  I know all about the angel Morona and Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates.  But you came here to talk with me, and I respect that.  You’re brave.  You showed up.” 

Our Rating: 7.9 (Stand-Out)

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 is out now via Caldo Verde Records.

Review: Start A Fire That Sings You A Song by Social Caterpillar

FFO: folk punk, chamber pop, post-rock

“Experimental” has become a blanket term for describing music that deviates even so slightly from the norm. It’s a term that manages to equivocate musique concrète, field recordings, ambient noise, and avant-garde with the likes of prog rock, metal, and indie pop alike. That’s not to say that there’s nothing of substance to the creative elements of those genres. Rather, the level of experimentation sits at a palatable level where they’re largely conducive of a song’s pop appeal. True experimentation is typically less digestible on a first take – it’s accompanied by a certain uneasiness; it conjures questions of the very things the listeners is experiencing. Experimentation certainly exists in music, but it’s not always easy to find artists who (intentionally) play with this part of the human psyche as a way to enhance their performances.

Milwaukee, WI-based Social Caterpillar find their place in an enigmatic intersection of a variety of styles. Chamber-style string arrangements? Check. Walls of noise and static? Check. Samples and voiceovers? Check. Six-minute songs? Check. It’s a sound that seems to borrow from early emo, interject some of the angular elements of Slint, and paint things over with a multitude of electro-acoustic arrangements that feel simultaneously psychedelic and vaudeville. It’s dark, cinematic, raw, and beautiful.

The group’s latest release, Start A Fire That Sings You A Song, reads like a narrative that charts this dense landscape of sounds and mood. It’s a mere eight tracks long, with almost half being interludes, but it’s certainly not light on content. The shortest non-interlude is over four minutes long, and several tracks top six minutes.

As for the music itself, the album wastes no time showing its experimental side. The aptly-named “Cult Chant” begins with a dissonant guitar line and a distorted voice overlay. Warped synthesizer sounds ultimately render the voice inaudible, and after the voice overlay fades, we’re presented with a repetition of “I don’t like what I’ve become”, progressively adding in harmonies. It’s a striking first taste of the album that resolves to a somewhat-normal state shortly after as the strings come in. Slowcore-esque segments weave in and out as they pass by passages of acoustic pop.

Just when things start to feel comfortable, the track fades out into the noisy “Interlude A”. This interlude feels intentionally alien in all respects – whereas “Cult Chant” featured a strong core of acoustic instrumentation, there is nothing organic to be found on its successor.

“Caught a Fly” returns us to a more concrete listening experience, this time opting for a more upbeat approach on things. A mid-tempo guitar line with occasional harmonics serves as the backbone, while intense, staccato vocals drift over top. Of course, this veneer of bliss dissolves into dissonance before long. The fury seems further augmented by brooding string arrangements. And while there are a couple rays of light throughout the later half of the track, the end is accompanied by a chaotic crescendo that would even make The Chariot proud.

“Interlude B” is much like the previous interlude – otherworldly, digital, foreign. There are even hints of explosions hidden under the otherwise-synthetic noise. It’s not something you’d want to loop, but it certainly does add some emotional context to the album.

“Bad Electricity” starts off with a folk/alt-country type guitar line paired with warm, layered vocals. It feels like a campfire song of sorts that juggles a bit of emo influence as well. It’s admittedly one of the simpler songs to some degree, but this is largely a positive. As to be expected at this point, things don’t stay in one place too long and the track shifts gears. The second half is fuller, more vibrant, laced with intermittent falsetto and a faster past.

The abrupt end of “Bad Electricity” feeds into “Interlude C”, the shortest and most barren of the three interludes. It’s far less layered that its counterparts, and it balances some organic elements against synth backdrops. There’s a bit of a melodic segment, though it doesn’t have time to develop too far.

With the interludes out of the way, “New New Year” bursts forth with full force. It’s a drum-heavy track that scales back on guitar a bit. The resounding chant of “Life is just playgrounds for vibrations” is a highlight, and it’s followed by captivating string motif. Ultimately, it’s reminiscent of another Wisconsin band – Appleton’s Cave Paintings. For the typical reader, it boils down to this: thoughtful and poetic art-rock with tight drums and mid-tempo melodies.

The album ends much the way it began – a guitar part and voiceover. However, it’s no issue making out the words this time. It’s a punk ethos, a call to stand up for the value of the lives of others and ourselves. These socio-political overtones are met with some of the most abrasive instrumentation on the album so far. Without vocals, the song would be at home on a horror movie soundtrack. Lyrics are fitting, with an air of protest and a dose of “Eat the rich”. A minute-or-so outro leads to yet another abrupt end, this time for the album as a whole

So, what’s there to make of this release? It’s authentic, balancing raw segments with production that is ultimately professional. It’s adventurous and takes plenty of risks. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s also some tension as well. Again, it’s hard to place this album in one exact genre but there’s a level of folk-punk commentary at play at times which seems to be part of the main theme of the album.

However, there are a couple points of contention. Firstly, the political commentary feels a bit trite – it’s not to say that there aren’t real issues in the world that need to be fixed, but it feels like many artists and civilians are regurgitating the same lines (like the aforementioned “Eat the rich”). This comes across as a bit cliché or perhaps even pandering, especially since I can’t imagine anyone in office to pull up an obscure experimental indie folk album for casual listening – the audience likely already agrees with these sentiments and that bit doesn’t add much to the existing conversation. That’s not a summary of the lyrics of the entire album, which, for the most part, are a bit more abstract and poetic.

Secondly, I’m not sure where I stand on the interludes. I appreciate the subtle nod between the opening track (where the voice over is muffled) and final track (where the voice over is easy to understand) and how the interludes also get less chaotic over time. They’re not overly-long, either – which is nice. However, the transitions between regular songs and interludes isn’t smooth and it would have been interesting to hear the interludes engulf the ends and starts of songs to truly make the album feel seamless.

Thirdly, and this is minor, it’d be nice to hear some of the compositions built out a bit more. There are a lot of instrumental layers to the album, but they’re rarely all seen in the same space. Drums shine every now and then; synths are largely constrained to the interludes. It’d be cool to hear some of the minimalist arrangements paired with more wall-of-sound, post-rock-esque builds. The band does a great job of what they do use throughout the album, but sometimes it feels a little too bare.

Ultimately, Social Caterpillar has managed to lace Start A Fire That Sings You A Song with true experimentation – and like any good experiment, there’s risk involved. Ultimately, the flaws are pretty limited and the end result is a musical cocktail made of ingredients of unknown origin. Its flavor is at times sweet and at times bitter – but when all is said and done, you’ll ask the bartender for another one.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand-Out)

Review: Death Magnanimous by Troll 2

For fans of: AJJ, Pat the Bunny, The Dead South Murder by Death, Dixie Chicks

If you’re been around the block for a while, you’ll recognize Troll 2 as that immediately divisive movie released in 1990 with little connection to its predecessor that sits at a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film has garnered colorful reviews like the following:

“Troll 2” is as treacherous and repulsive a film as I’ve ever seen. Judging by the actors’ crude performances and the incredible lack of technical skill, it doesn’t seem like anyone involved in the production knew what they were doing or what was going on. The first explanation that comes to mind is that all of the badness is intentional, but even I don’t think that a purposely awful film would come close to the ineptitude shown on display here. It’s ugly, poorly-strung together, not scary in the least bit and altogether a real horrible thing. The only half-redeeming quality about it is that its own awfulness may cause you to laugh, but don’t count on it.

Thankfully, this is not a review of the film – but instead, of a band who has chosen the film as its namesake. Boston-based Troll 2 is socially-conscious folk-punk group formed in the 2010s from a host of other bands. The band carries a similar wit to The Dead South (if the name weren’t proof), tackling issues like the wage gap and police abuse with energetic, direct songs. There’s even a touch of macabre mixed in as well, in true AJJ fashion.

Death Magnanimous, the band’s 2018 LP, certainly holds nothing back in any of these respects. After the instrumental interlude “Theme From Troll 2”, the band dives into the murder ballad, “Means and Motive”. Stylistically, it has a bit of Carrie Underwood-esque vocals mixed into the aggression of the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”. Here’s a check look at some of the lyrics:

She came to me, calling after midnight
Sobbing in the bathtub with still her sweater done
As I watched the water run from salmon into scarlet
I knew right then and there we would not stop ’til this war’s won

We packed the car and we headed down to Danvers
I at the wheel, her small frame shotgun side
I’ll erase evidence like you erase accusations
Why is justice for others so often self denied?

The song addresses domestic abuse and manipulation of power with bold lyrics and enchanting instrumentals. Strings aplenty adorn the album, but it never feels needlessly southern. The musical compositions are worthy to accompany their lyrical counterparts, showcasing the same levels of wistfulness and aggression.

“I’ve Got a Stick” is a playful anti-violence song whose highlight line is “Kiss your mom / I’ve got the bomb”. There’s a silver lining on the ending verse (which is an alternate take on the first), which focuses on the power of cooperation.

Other tracks, specifically “Roadkill” and “You Should Think About Death More” focus more on mortality, ephemera, and perhaps even depression. However, these are not cheap sentiments; rather, they’re meant to be viewed in light of the other themes on the album. The underlying commentary is a call to action rather than a simple regurgitation of how depressing modern life is. “There’s no end until you face it”, the album concludes. It’s easy to read that as acceptance of mortality but it’s also an implication that the problems that permeate society will persist if we simply ignore them.

“Theme from Troll 2 – Reprise” perhaps sheds a bit more light on the album and band as a whole. It’s a counterpart to the opener, but it contains lines from the Troll 2 film. Specifically, the lines concern the infection which is a main plot point of the movie. As characters contract the illness, they are in stasis, simply waiting to be devoured. It’s not hard to see a confused, burdened, and largely-passive public in the same way. The infection is already here, and we’re called to be on guard.

Death Magnanimous is an example of how folk-punk should be: culturally-sensitive, masterfully-crafted, clothed in timelessness. If it were an instrumental album, it’d be easy to mistake it as baroque. If it were judged on lyrics alone, you might expect a large influence of swamprock and country. But it instead rests in the confluence of artisan string melodies, upbeat folk, and lyrics that never shy from tough issues. Troll 2 stand out from their compatriots with their ability to balance all of these elements without sacrificing any relative portion of a single aspect. And while it’s unfortunately too late to add Death Magnanimous to your end-of-year favorites, this is certainly a band you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Our Rating: 8.5 (Best New Music)

Review: If I’m Not by Dreamspook

For fans of: Radiohead, Sleep Party People, Dakota Suite

Dreamspook, a Minnesota-turned-Texas based experimental pop project fronted by Gabriel Jorgensen, has resurfaced with a new three-track EP. Jorgensen’s previous releases have managed to span genres and moods with ease, with his 2017 debut, King In The Folly Keep, serving as a Radiohead-esque full band venture and 2018’s Flying Mammal delving deeper into maximalist electronica. Dreamspook’s live show has traditionally been a solo venture executed with an array of synths and drum machines siphoned into precise loops, modulated beyond recognition, and ultimately brandished into a jaw-dropping performance.

It’s to some surprise then that If I’m Not, Dreamspook’s latest EP, shifts from the live sound to a simpler, more vulnerable lo-fi style. If Flying Mammal was the pinnacle of the inorganic experience, If I’m Not feels more “human”. Guitar, bass, and drums fill in a space normally occupied by gossamer layers of synthesizers. And while Jorgensen has been known for personal lyrics, often paired with some pretty interesting stories, and these songs showcase the same biographical style. Take the opening track, “Friend Seeking Friend”:

I am not old yet, but old enough
old enough to question what it is that I’ve got
whatever I expected, whatever I’d planned
didn’t think I’d feel as lonely, as lonely as I am

The lyrics may not be as cryptic of poetic as some of Dreamspook’s previous songs, but the sentiment is strong and the vocal execution and overall compositions behind the lyrics gives these lines a whimsical feeling.

The Bandcamp description says the EP is “three fruits from a barren season”. That’s telling of some of the inspiration of the album. While Dreamspook has other songs that could have been released instead, there is a sense of ennui; it’s a struggle of finding purpose, meaningful friendship, and self-love in an age of confusion and nihilism.

Even though If I’m Not is stylistically different than previous Dreamspook releases, it still has plenty of shared DNA with its predecessors. Thoughtful, intimate lyrics are paired with soaring vocal passages. Songs are dynamic and cinematic. Synthesizers, though more sparse than before, are still at play as well and work as a good backdrop to the rest of the compositions. Jorgensen enlisted Cooper Doten on bass, as well as King in the Folly Keep drummer Con Davison, to lend their talents this time around. The collaborative effort is certainly a net positive that gives If I’m Not a distinct place in the Dreamspook catalog.

The largest inhibiting factor to the EP is sheer brevity – three tracks and a run-time of under 15 minutes. It consequently feels a bit unfinished, though the Bandcamp tagline and Jorgensen’s move to Texas point me to think this serves as a bit of a turning point on the way to newer things. While the EP again does have cohesive themes, its end feels a bit too abrupt. A few more tracks would have helped round things out quite a bit in this respect.

Nonetheless, Dreamspook will continue to create. Only time will tell when or what the next iteration will sound like. But we can rest assured Gabriel Jorgensen and his synthesizers have more stories to tell us.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

Review: Wire Mountain by Will Johnson

My path to appreciating folk and Americana was a gradual one that spanned several years and relied on a lot of transition bands. That process revealed a lot to me about music as a whole – that there’s a common DNA between quiet singer-songwriters and wailing post-hardcore outfits. You can enjoy both, albeit they’re to be appreciated in context of their respective contexts.

On first listen, Will Johnson’s Wire Mountain is a sleepy album that calls to mind other artists like Nathan Phillips (Winston Jazz Routine, The Choir at Your Door), Richard Edwards (Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s), and TW Walsh. Sleepy, of course, is meant in the most flattering of ways – an ethereal, quiet mix that exemplifies subtlety. Tender acoustic arpeggios serve as foundation under Johnson’s gossamer falsetto. Elsewhere, there’s a bit more grit at play – but even then, it’s as if the listener were in the desert amid a sandstorm. It’s still quiet, even if fearfully so.

Wire Mountain‘s cover is fitting: rustic, vintage, awe-inspiring. It’s the pursuit of a destination that is visible afar only due to sheer magnitude. It’s the diminishing feeling of being face to face with something much bigger than yourself, a la The Pale Blue Dot.

It’s a mood that runs think through the veins of the album itself. Even from the gritty undertones of “Necessitarianism (Fred Murkle’s Blues)”, the soft, eery feeling of being alone in the wilderness is at full force. The percussion feels like a hammer at an anvil. The tambourine conjures images of chains hitting the ground. It’s a track that feels intense and laid-back all at once, and this is a trick Johnson knows how to pull off with success.

“Cornelius” opens with a gospel-flavored vocal harmony paired with some of the most aggressive guitar and drums on the album. Even at his loudest, Wire Mountain doesn’t feel overbearing. The rhythms are far more foundational than ornamental here, and the steady pulse keeps things moving along without demanding full attention.

Other tracks embrace their softer side more fully. “A Solitary Slip” and “Shadow Matter” are both moody and airy jams that shimmer with simplicity and earnestness.

There are even traces of ambient compositions and unidentifiable noises on the album which gives it a surprising air of experimental flair (the album’s closer is a great example).

Wire Mountain sits well alongside fellow singer-songwriter Old Sea Brigade’s Ode to a Friend, release earlier this year. However, for every ounce of 80s and pop Ode to a Friend brings to the table, Wire Mountain brings its share of Americana and western-flavored spirit. And while Johnson may not bring the same flavor of artistry as the aforementioned Nathan Phillips and Richard Edwards, Johnson’s work certainly stands out among his local counterparts with its careful mix of nostalgia-evoking southern folk.

Our Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)