The Bleeding Hearts
In the rock n' roll universe, the number of bands that cite Cheap Trick, Kiss and The Ramones as being among their primary influences is inestimably large. Most of those bands will never make it beyond the bars of their conception, essentially because their devotion to the guitar-wielding rock gods is taken as a sonic prescription, not a suggestion of direction.
The Bleeding Hearts certainly owe a good deal of their rock n' roll spirit to those aforementioned forebears, but this Raleigh-to-the-core four-piece of Sam Madison, Jimbo Britt, Joe Yerry and Scott Taylor manages to transcend the banality and redundancy of their peers thanks to pitch-perfect guitars and Madison's ambitious, playful and seasoned songwriting. In fact, the band's hot-off-the-press debut, Stayin' After Class, is a concept album, which finds Madison chasin' the girls and tellin' their dirty tales during his high school tenure. Madison is never hot for the teacher, but the band's old school rock swagger plays out like Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick and Judas Priest mixed in the mind of a teenage troublemaker, brewed way down south and seasoned with more than a sprinkling of '80s glam swagger.
Madison--a veteran of Man Will Destroy Himself, Big Dixie and The Usuals--wrote the songs after first practicing with the three New York transplants and Hearts to be, dealing with a decade-old divorce for the first time in his songwriting. Word of the band spread like wildfire for their first two local gigs, and they netted a record deal with Charlotte-based MoRisen Records after their third set. That fell through in late 2003, though, and the band was free to release Stayin' After Class--a record that somehow glimpses a life of two decades ago with all attitude, no nostalgia--by their damn selves. Chris Parker
Chatham County Line
Drums aren't common on the stage of MacGregor Village's Six String Cafe, a quiet little listening room in Cary where national and local acoustic acts dazzle fans with mellow, dreadnought-guided sets seven nights a week. As Raleigh's Chatham County Line dances across the stage on this late-summer Bluegrass Wednesday, however, the lack of drums is striking.
Tonight in the entirely seated Six String Cafe--in essence, a large, warm den lined with tables for two, padded armchairs and cavernous couches--nary an audience member is still. Instead, they're dancing in their seats, jerking their heads to the beat that Greg Readling lays down with his upright bass, leaning into the band's lone, central microphone. Nothing is immune--feet, fingers, hands, knees, noggins, everyone seems to be on the beat. On stage, eight cowboy boots tap along diligently, lightly keeping the time against the polished wooden floor of the stage.
That's Chatham County Line, a finely dressed, four-piece bluegrass outfit that breathes enthusiasm. Frontman Dave Wilson and mandolin/fiddle fiend John Teer cut up between each song, commenting on their dress for the stage, video cameras in the bedroom and inaudible burps during solos. Teer has been known to duck beneath Wilson's shiny Martin six-string to cut a solo, only to have Wilson hop beneath his fiddle and cut him off just short of the microphone. All the while, banjo player Chandler Holt picks a steady three-finger line, pretending their jokes are only a bit funny. Or at least until he chimes in himself.
These fellows have just spent a month together in a van, an upright bass strapped to the top as they traveled from town to town, gig to gig in Colorado. They've played seven times since returning to town two weeks ago. But they're not tired of each other, and they're not tired of playing Wilson's brilliantly nostalgic, rock-informed, new-school bluegrass classics. Really, these guys are best friends. Grayson Currin
Ghost of Rock
Ghost of Rock's hungry rock maw churns through its rugged riffs like Al Pacino chewing scenery--it's done with a self-consciousless hunger that seems to know no satiation. Listening to Ron Liberti's gargled, throaty vocals alongside Clifton Lee Mann's bustling guitar roar and the jackhammer rhythms, one's tempted to check the surrounding walls for padding lest their wall-banging ferocity bring the house down with them. Serious garage rockers with motor oil in their veins, theirs is a V-16 in a Honda--power great enough to rattle anything to the ground except the music's sturdy frame. Liberti and Mann teamed previously in Pipe, which demonstrated an array of punk influences, but here the sound's a bit more circumscribed, pawing around its cage like a big angry cat. One hears echoes of the Dead Boys' claustrophobic grime with a smattering of The Damned's thundering tunefulness, reverberating through the constricted confines of a homeless mission. The sinewy sonics are carried by Mann's crunchy, epileptic riffs, which bound through the mix like a hyperactive child. For all the ribald raunch, there's a subterranean hookiness that resides like the Tootsie in the middle of the pop--sweet, but chewy and almost assuredly bad for you. But hey, no one lives forever. Among the highlight tracks of their just released self-titled debut, are the chiming punk shuffle, "Avoid Disconnect," which finds Liberti "selling CDs, I'm selling my blood," to avoid service interruption, and "All I Ever," a shitstorm of distortion reigning over the exposed, rotting corpses of failed relationships. Chris Parker
Given the recent release of their sophomore Together We're Heavy, a handful of appearances on national television and a funny little incident in which a percussion microphone was mistaken for a bomb, most people with as much as an ear to the indie rock world know the 24-piece, Dallas-rooted Polyphonic Spree.
They probably don't know Go Machine, though.
Go Machine is another Dallas-borne rock oddity, a three-piece who--by way of members Alex Lazara, Daniel Hart and David Karsten Daniels and their disparate, sprawling collective influences--prove that little things can come in small packages. Together, they carve a Modest Mouse-meets-Air-remixed by Prefuse 73 aesthetic from a spacy, heady amalgamate of heartbreak and breakbeats.
And The Spree connection isn't simply geographical. Turntablist/vocalist/violinist/bassist/guitarist Daniel Hart served as the Spree's original violinist, and Ryan Fitzgerald--now the big band's guitarist--was part of the Go Machine's seven-piece configuration years ago back in Dallas. After that unit disbanded, the band's principals headed to different parts of the West Coast, with Lazara returning to Los Angeles and Daniels heading north to Portland. Hart eventually found himself in Durham, pleading with his former bandmates to join him in the east and give the band another go.
They obliged, returning to spearhead Bu Hanan records, issuing look to the as Bu Hanan 003 (Daniels had previously issued two solo albums on the label), booking a handful of local shows, and quickly gaining substantial local affection. Bu Hanan continued to grow, releasing a full-length from charged singer-songwriter Perry Wright as The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, followed by New Frontiers, a late 2003 compilation of local bands. Hart spent five weeks opening for David Bowie with The Polyphonic Spree in early 2004, but the band has spent the last few months building and rehearsing material for a long overdue, highly anticipated follow-up. Grayson Currin
It's not so much that rock music is the sound of youth as that it's forged out of a rebellious insouciance born of a hope and faith that comes less easily the older you get. It's a romantic calling in its quixotic artistic pursuit, and this resonates in the songs whether they're about longing, the twisting winds of change (political or personal), or the promise of love. That International Orange captures this sense so perfectly is the secret of their success. They understand the anxiousness we share for something better, whether mocking their "Hand to Mouth" existence as "the general of an army of clowns/we don't march in line/we just kind of run around," acknowledging the old hometown that "I'd swore I'd leave but never will, Fayetteville, where life is sweet and time stands still," or giving a piss-take on an overcrowded industry, singing, "overrated and better that way, 'cause you're just a s singer with nothing to say." The band pools the ample songwriting talents of witty wisecracking pop-rocking solo artist Django Haskins, bomb dropping bassist and ex-Ben Folds Five component Robert Sledge, and Bus Stop founder and erstwhile solo musician Britt Uzell (aka Snuzz). Each brings his own unique, yet very complementary pop-tock style to the group's debut EP, Spoon Box, resulting in a mesh of rootsy, country-tinged, pop-savvy indie rock, united by fine, understated playing and thoughtful lyricism. It's music that spreads infectiously from a smile to foot-tapping to a sea of bobbing heads. Chris Parker
Patty Hurst Shifter
Most people have heard or seen the stories and the faces, instances where a perfectly good songwriter honing his craft in too-loud local bars or too-regular open mic nights meets a motley crew of strangers that totally digs his songs and is totally up for starting a band. Most of those bands don't work, pitting the songs of a writer who is not quite sure if he's ready with overzealous bandmates that believe they can make him so.
Rest assured, Patty Hurst Shifter--a simultaneously slick and ragged quartet that met after guitarist Marc Smith and drummer-turned-bassist Johny Williams met Chris Smith singing his songs solo in bars and coffeehouses--is not one of those unprepared, overambitious units. In fact, Chris Smith--a songwriter who vacillates between a kind of country attention to detail and a rock effrontery--was long overdue for a full-band treatment. And, Marc Smith (ex-34 Satellite), Williams (ex-Glory Fountain) and eventual drummer Skillet Gilmore (ex-Whiskeytown) were just the road-tested crew to turn Smith's numbers into guitar-blazing, beer-imbibing barnstormers, a la The Replacements and the band's formation-day heroes, Drive-By Truckers.
Named in part for Patty Hearst Syndrome (in which a kidnapped person becomes attached to his or her kidnappers) and as a playful jibe on Ryan Adams' similar early Raleigh outfit Patty Duke Syndrome, PHS formed in 1999 so that they could open for their pals and favorites in the Truckers. The band scored an immediate record deal after that debut by way of local impresario Van Alston's Ricebox Records, and they have seldom looked back since.
The brilliant, warm and contagious Beestinger Lullabies was released in 2001 to critical acclaim and particular attention from the Triangle-based alt.country discussion board, Guitartown.org. A long-awaited sophomore effort is in the works. Grayson Currin
Begun in 1992 as an outlet for the quieter, reflective lo-fi leftovers that obviously didn't fit his main band, Superchunk, Mac McCaughan's Portastatic followed the lead of Lou Barlow's pre-Sebadoh outfit, Sentridoh, one of the pioneers of the lo-fi revolution. Of course, the lo-fi movement was less a revolution than the natural outgrowth of cheap recording equipment which proliferated in the '80s. It seemed everyone had a four-track and recorded in their bedroom/basement/shed. The music was often barely demo quality, but, as such, had a very natural, organic, off-the-cuff and revealing feel, like peeking behind the curtain that shielded the Wizard of Oz. Portastatic--beginning when Tom Sharpling of 18 Wheeler Records asked McCaughan for some of his four-track recordings in 1993--followed the aesthetic pretty faithfully early on. The first few albums, through 1997's The Nature of Sap, fit the template pretty well, with McCaughan largely playing acoustic guitar or keyboards on gentle, understated songs that, while echoing the lyrical tone and melancholy style of Superchunk, sounded very little like them. But just as the 'Chunksters started to tone down the indie rock crush, so to did Portastatic begin to turn up the heat. After scoring a movie (Looking for Leonard), recording a Brazilian music EP (De Mel, De Melao) and another with jazz artist Ken Vandermark (Perfect Little Door), Portastatic returned with a pair of albums, The Summer of the Shark and Autumn Was a Lark, the latter of which revealed a fully fleshed-out rock band, assembled for Portastatic's first tour. (Previously, McCaughan had played a handful of shows solo.) Clearly, McCaughan's approach has both broadened and changed to reflect his diverse tastes and the desire to take his band on the road. The group has lately produced some great indie rock that's a bit more low-key than Superchunk, but still eminently hummable (as always) and equally enjoyable. Chris Parker
There's something graceful in the ringing swing of jangly guitars (see Johnny Marr) and something stately in the sound of rich orchestrated music (see Belle & Sebastian). Between the two lies Regina Hexaphone, who play grand yet supple rock alternately cut from the pop or country cloth. The violin provides a traditional, melancholy undercurrent to many songs, whether with haunting Irish folk echoes as on "Bright Falling Stars," off their self-titled debut, or with a wide-open, rustling C&W lope pulled down by an undertow of longing, as on "40 Days." At other times, the guitar churns beneath an organ hum, atmosphere rolling in thick like fog off San Francisco Bay, or perhaps the guitar takes a plucky, irrepressible bent, accented by horns, bringing out the jauntiness of the melody as on their bubbling pop number, "Ice." Regina Hexaphone sashays between spooky and sublime beauty throughout with the mysterious allure of a sexy profile across a smoky bar. The warm, lilting alto of singer/multi-instrumentalist Sara Bell drives the numbers, as she's equally facile with gentle delicacy, blooming swells of emotion or floating ghostly plaintiveness. On top of their smart pop savvy is the inventiveness of the arrangements, which groove more than you might expect from something with as much lush, baroque style. Though their debut only came out this spring, the band's been playing together for years, and Bell's further honed her musicianship in local instrumental rock fave Shark Quest (who have also just released a new album). Chris Parker
It's July 29 and the air conditioning at the Cat's Cradle is as chilly as it has ever been. Local music fans, as well as indie kids across America, have been looking forward to this day at this place for a while. It's opening night at Merge Fest, the celebration that Superchunk members and Merge co-founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance throw every five years to celebrate the survival and growth of the label. It's the first night that Kelly Crisp and Ivan Howard--the husband and wife that formed The Rosebuds three years ago in Wilmington--have played to most of this crowd. The room sold out weeks ago and is quickly filling up.
They should be nervous, and Howard--one of those humble guys who still can't believe he was ever signed to a label that sports Destroyer and Matt Suggs ("Yeah, Golden Days Before The End is one of my favorite albums ever," he smiled two days later as Suggs took the same stage)--probably is. He's really just a nice guy from Fuquay-Varina who happens to write really great melodies built on The Beatles and The Kinks mechanics he picked up at his hometown Roses' department store as a kid.
Tonight, though, he's in full, cool form, playing the perfect part on stage, looking loose, throwing back the guitar and grabbing a tambourine for an extended, chant-out-loud break on "Kicks in the Schoolyard." Crisp is the quintessential sidekick, too, dancing with one hand in the air while the other prances out quick and across the keys. Backing the two is Wes Phillips, one-third of Ticonderoga and one of the best multi-instrumentalists in town. He pummels the kit, punishing the snare and giving the Rosebuds the punch and dance-ability that they've sometimes missed.
Call it grace under pressure, or call it a now-firm trio finally on a mission, but--tonight--these Rosebuds really do believe in rock n' roll. Grayson Currin
No more than two songs into a Ticonderoga set, one thing is obvious: These guys are close. It's in the way they move on stage, the way they nod at each other as they lean into a transition, they way they rotate between instruments a dozen or so times in the course of a gig. More importantly, the bond between Mark Paulson, Wes Phillips and Phil Moore--bandmates and best friends since grade school back in their recently departed hometown of Iowa City--manifests itself in the music, with the individual and intricate layers of chiming, four-note keyboards, chunky guitars, lumbering bass and scatter-beat drums connecting, bouncing off and into each other almost spontaneously.
The songs and the parts aren't easy or obvious, either. But with a few nods, these guys drive right through them, accomplishing twisted, sinuous folk songs, like Cub Country or early, plainsong Wilco glimpsed through the brokesong lenses of Ticonderoga's kindred spirits--Sebadoh, Grandaddy, Sparklehorse. Though Ticonderoga has been playing only since January, their reception into the Raleigh fold has been quick and warm. Despite Phillips' role as the full-time bassist in The Balance and the latest drummer to occupy The Rosebuds' throne, show invitations have been abundant.
A handful of local labels have even approached the band about releasing its material under their banner, but Ticonderoga has taken an Internet-based approach for its distribution thus far, releasing new material on CD-R's after shows and online at www.ticonderobics.com. They plan to continue that approach indefinitely, and--with material this consistent and this weirdly magical--the Triangle is in for a treat for some time to come. Grayson Currin
Take three women performers with sweet distinctive voices, great chops and resumes indicative of both, then set them upon the dusty, rustic road between country and rock. Let them wind their hearts around the backroads of love and loss, negotiating sinkholes and skirting treacherous washed-out gulleys with their canny eyes and passion honed to a fine point. Tres Chicas have been together since '99, but only released their first album, Sweetwater, this summer due to the competing agendas of their other projects. Yet response has been so strong to this album one wonders if their fans will give them a chance to record with their prior outfits. To whit, the Chicas' principals include: honey-throated violinist Caitlin Cary, who released two wonderful solo albums after keying alt-country faves Whiskeytown with Ryan Adams; guitarist Tracy Lamm, who captains sultry, desert-inflected rockers, Hazeldine; and, guitarist Lynn Blakey, whose husky powerful pipes head rootsy atmospheric rockers Glory Fountain and before that was a member of Oh-OK with Magnapop's Linda Hopper and Lynda Stipe. All three share writing duties and rich, blended harmonies, trading off and traversing a variety of styles among originals, covers and selected material from their other projects. The best songs on Sweetwater include the Blakey title track, where she confides, "I used to think love was something that just fell on you," before concluding "love eats, drinks, breathes, hangs by a thread of belief," and the song "Desire," on which the pining Cary sings, "Wishing gave me her number and Waiting won't answer the phone... I put in a good word with Dignity, so maybe he'll give me a call." They also do mean covers of Bad Company's "Shooting Star," and Lorretta Lynn's "Deep as Your Pocket." Chris Parker
Two Dollar Pistols
While a generation of indie kids was saying "anything but country," another was busy planning the sound's reclamation. But unlike those who felt it needed a bit of ironic distance or a little sardonic twist, John Howie Jr. grew up the type to show it the respect due a family patriarch or favorite uncle. Thus, the Two Dollar Pistols play their country without a wink or a smirk, with the reverence that Stevie Ray Vaughn showed the blues. The most obvious touchstone is George Jones, along with Hank Williams, the godfather of hardcore honky-tonk. Howie cops the same tears-in-your-beer style without succumbing to later country cliche appendages like trains, faithful dogs and mommas. This is whiskey-straight country with pedal steel heartbreak and reverb guitar lonely loss. But the funny thing is, the more you listen to it, the more you realize how closely this old-timey country hews to the thoughts and concerns with love and disappointment that characterizes modern pop. The fact is, country's in pop's genes, even though they look nothing like each other. It's here that the secret of country opens up, speaking its language like Ice Cube spinning street lingo, just in a different vernacular. The Pistols have remained close to their inspiration for four albums, which isn't so hard when there are three decades of tradition to draw from. To the uninitiated it may be as inscrutable as death metal lyrics, but it's in there just as it's in all of us, with a second helping for those born in the South. While the Pistols play with tight verve and loose feeling winding down timeless country roads, leading the way is Howie's tremendous, resonant baritone that "uncannily marries Randy Travis' boom to George Jones' croon," as area Magnet critic Fred Mills describes it. Chris Parker