Album Review Bonanza Part 2: Rabbit Inn Rebellion

Before I get called out for stretching things beyond my original 24-hour promise, let me say that a) I got tired, b) all three of these posts have ended up being longer than I originally intended, and c) I decided it was important to go vote (PS GO VOTE! GET INFORMED AND CAST YOUR VOTE!) before I wrote up a review to an album by State Radio.  Excuses aside, here is the last of three new installments of this blog in three days: a write-up on the brand new release by Boston political rockers State Radio.

I should point out that State Radio is and has been my favorite band for several years now.  In the early 2000s, Chad Urmston began writing heavily political and well-educated rock and reggae songs as his jammy grassroots-celebrity band Dispatch was headed for a breakup.  For the past decade hence Urmston has fronted a Boston-based trio that defines itself on activism in practice and in their words.  Earlier this week, State Radio released their fourth full-length album, Rabbit Inn Rebellion, a heavy disc that rumbles in a slightly new direction for the group.

Listeners of State Radio will recognize a heavy slate of hot-button issues in the lyrics on the album, but gone are even a hint of the reggae upstrokes that have been present in the band’s music even as their arrangements have moved in darker and more metallic directions.  The great irony is that while the skanking is gone from these songs, the intense riffs and unexpected turnarounds that are found on Rabbit Inn Rebellion actually call the listener back to State Radio’s first studio offering, a 2002 EP titled Flag of the Shiners.  I miss the Marley-esque blend of reggae and social consciousness that the band has admittedly been moving ever so cautiously away from since their debut full-length, 2006’s Us Against the Crown, but the bombastic riffs and crashing wall of cymbal and bass guitar that sits at the forefront of the new album is just as familiar and welcome.

One of State Radio’s greatest strengths is Urmston’s incredible gift for storytelling; from his Dispatch heyday in the 1990s to the present, the songwriter has waxed lyrical about the fantastical and the painfully real, often finding a mystical realism in his words.  The people Urmston has met and the sights he’s seen clearly give him an arsenal of stories to tell, and each of them seems breathtakingly important.  A singer and lyricist with this clear of a command of oral history and English vocabulary can make some magical things happen on a record, and Urmston regularly achieves this.  Combining Urmston’s vocals with his clever guitar riffs, the face-melting lead bass guitar of Chuck Fay (this term has never been so appropriate in band not led by Les Claypool or Victor Wooten), and Mike “Maddog” Najarian’s 1990s hard rock-style drumming creates a rock album that captivates the listener from start to finish.

When it was released I was quick to refer to Let it Go, the most recent State Radio album, as a stream of anthems, their melodies soaring over the wall of sound the band created to great emotional appeal and effect.  Rabbit Inn Rebellion is similarly anthemic in the melodic structure and the earnest cries (and they are often cries) of the characters in Urmston’s stories.  From hard rockers about a mother in Haiti looking for her children in the aftermath of an earthquake and a populace that has forgotten about two wars they’re fighting (“Roadway Broken” and “Take Cover“, respectively) to the Boston-punk story of a guardian angel girl in “Freckled Mary“, Rabbit Inn Rebellion sees Urmston screaming over blues-clogged guitars and a rhythm section at the top of their game to package crucial issues and stories in fitting songs that often give a face and a narrative voice to their tales.

And there are tales to tell here.  The album kicks off with clips from an interview with a former junkie as an overdriven blues groove tells about the dangers of hard drugs in “H.A.C.K.I.N.“.  State Radio takes on Wall Street in “Big Man” and the tragedy of lost life in wartime in the Itunes-only bonus track “Ocean“.  A new recording of “Adelaide” (a more rootsy version appears on Urmston’s 2011 solo album) recounts the rise and fall of a love between Urmston’s brother and a girl from a Navajo reservation, and the Police-with-a-punk-twist roar of “Desert Queen” provides the listener with a true story of a dog killer in Arizona.    The distortion kicks off quickly on the first track and doesn’t really let up all the way through the closer, the Black Sabbath-like “Black Welsh Mountain“.  Rabbit Inn Rebellion is clearly meant to be listened to at loud volumes, and playing through it the listener is compelled at turns to scream along with the repeated chants and shift with the swaying riffs that power each track.

I’ve heard the comment that the album barely feels new, as almost half of the tracks had been released in some form or another prior to release, but I feel that they’re mostly all defensible.  “Adelaide” is sufficiently different from the Simmerkane II version released last year that I am happy to listen to it. “Roadway Broken” was released early as a part of a benefit for relief in Haiti.  “Freckled Mary” and “Take Cover” were essentially singles leaked to garner excitement, and “State of Georgia” is just now making its first appearance as a full-band studio cut.  The latter is maybe emotional peak of the album: a creeping voodoo blues flips the switch to death-cry rock to commit to memory the tragic life and death of Troy Davis.

Rabbit Inn Rebellion is as much a call to action as a listening experience, and the band is happy to back their lyrics up with community service and advocacy.  Urmston himself actually founded a nonprofit organization that works to unite musicians and fans in service to communities and causes.  Today actually eclipses Calling All Crows’ annual 5k in Northampton, Massachusetts, with this year’s proceeds raising awareness for marriage equality.  Just as the band has written songs about earthquakes and death-row inmates and human rights violations, their work has gone towards promoting and funding these efforts.  In this way, the group is always able to underscore the importance of their work; not only does State Radio support the causes they advocate in their music, they are happy to join hands with their fans and put work in on the ground in these situations.

State Radio’s newest offering is a headbanging freight train that barrels through chapter after chapter of a litany of causes and issues that weigh heavily on the band’s collective mind.  With snarling guitars and bass guitar riffs that vibrate the listener’s insides, this is a meaner and dirtier sound than the band has often put to record, but one that relates their message just as effectively.  Rabbit Inn Rebellion may prove to take a physical and emotional toll on the listener, but that falls right in line with the sober nature of so many of these stories being told.  In some ways this is a different type of album than the typical State Radio listener is used to, but the incredible (and with one or two exceptions, true) stories being told and undeniable quality of songwriting maintain this as a release to grab and a band to continue watching.

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Album Review Bonanza Part 1: Country, God, or the Girl

As I implied last night when I finally came back to posting about underappreciated music here, I’ll be writing two more pieces this evening.  Later tonight I’ll have a review of a snarling new album by State Radio, but I’m beginning with one of 2012’s most anticipated albums in mind- if for no other reason than that it’s been long-delayed and put off.  When it didn’t drop in May (or June, or July) I started to worry something had gone horribly wrong with K’naan’s follow-up to 2009’s Troubadour.  I’m still not sure why it took so long, but October 16 Country, God, or the Girl arrived.  And I’m writing now to break it down for you.

There are so many things about this album that don’t make any sense.  K’naan seems to be the absolute best as tighrope-walking the line between superstar-level fame and eternal obscurity.  It could be because instead of capitalizing on becoming the 2010 World Cup’s theme music and palling around with will.I.am K’naan took his first trip home in 20-odd years to document famine and destruction in his native Somalia, but the fact that a rap album featuring cameos from Bono and Keith Richards could fly so far under the radar that even fans couldn’t pin down the release date is amazing.  Now that Country, God, or the Girl is finally here, we have an album that will be categorized as rap because K’naan is a rapper, though there is roughly as much singing as rapping, and the hard-edged beats that even I expected from the sneak peak EP More Beautiful than Silence are a minority on the full-length.

Even those slightly more jagged tunes only reflect a more pop sensibility than the rest of K’naan’s music, as work with some really slick producers has yielded familiar tracks like “Is Anybody Out There?” and “Better” (detailed on my write-up of the EP released early this year).  The leadoff single from the new album goes by the name of “Hurt Me Tomorrow“, a piano-driven bouncer that features K’naan straining his voice to the top of his range and delivering lines about putting off a breakup while referencing pop culture figures spanning the past eighty years. “Hurt Me Tomorrow” is undoubtedly a catchy tune, and the drum-machine-plus-bright-piano sound definitely reflects the conventions of post-2000 mainstream hip-hop (think Jay-Z or Cam’ron), though the last remaining vestiges of K’naan’s Somali accent and idiosyncratic vocal stylings keep even a song about such a broad topic at least a tiny bit original.

And subject matter is clearly a dimension of this album in which the artist wanted to diversify.  The references to his country’s civil war and his identity as both an African and a refugee are still plentiful, but in a Rolling Stone video interview the rapper states clearly that he wanted this album to look more introspectively at his own emotions and emotional experiences that listeners anywhere could relate to.  The combination of this new lyrical focus and a concerted return to the samples of soothing acoustic sounds and East African jazz records yields an album that sounds at once more conventional and more left-field than anything K’naan has done.  The understated “Simple“, for example, sounds like a blend of Coldplay, the Police, and Sub-Saharan Mbira music, creating an insistent groove in which the jangly thumb pianos play with the artist’s puzzling over his continued survival.  More than once distinctly East African melodies come into play in electric guitar lines: the album opener “The Seed” explodes into a pounding chant about K’naan’s gratitude for life and drive to be at his best while “Bulletproof Pride” contemplates how to stay friends with a (literal? metaphorical?) mercenary while Bono (yes, that Bono) sings backup.  By the time the record rolls to the standout “70 Excuses” and its slow burn from a minimalist meditation to an afropop-tinged saxophone romp, anything seems fair game.  Country, God, or the Girl is just K’naan making his music his own way, and orating on his emotions and dreams as he carries on.

 

The new album isn’t without its flaws.  I’m always skeptical of will.I.am’s appearance, and his appearance amidst the slappy guitar of “Alone” is unexpected at best and unpleasantly confusing at worst.  Likewise, Mark Foster of Foster the People appears on the last track (it’s technically a bonus track, but the album appears meant to be listened to with everything included) to wail falsettos over hand claps, tambourines, and a churning chorus.  These aren’t necessarily bad tracks, but they definitely feel like half-baked experiments, and these fall into a category with “Gold in Timbuktu” and “The Sound of My Breaking Heart” as less-stellar moments on the record.

 

Having said that, Country, God, or the Girl is in many ways what I was expecting and hoping for.  K’naan continues his evolution as a musician by widening his musical scope while taking his lyrics deeper into his own chest.  The raw passion of The Dusty Foot Philosopher isn’t to be found here, but the rapper gives the listener an equally earnest message with a much clearer head and a more even composure.  It’s rare that he gets terribly specific in his storytelling on this album, but K’naan appears to have hit onto something by speaking to experiences he’s had that his entire listenership also shares.  Even beyond the fact that this is musically a fantastically diverse rap album, and the fact that K’naan’s lyrics feel just as urgent and plaintive as ever, this is quite simply just a lovely modern hip-hop album.  Country, God, or the Girl is a paradox in its simultaneous appearance as a star-studded commercial affair and a socially-conscious mixtape that flows through its architect’s memory with unlikely arrangements of music from around the world.  The album is uplifting at turns and hollow at others, but there’s never a point at which I want to stop listening.

Nobody Listens to…Bankrupt and the Borrowers

EDITOR’S NOTE: A few super-helpful individuals with ties to the band have contacted me to clear up a few details about the group. Those changes are now reflected below. Thanks everyone! Keep reading (and expect a few new “Nobody Listens to”s to appear in the next few weeks).

Yes! At long last I’m writing a new post.  I’ve been away for a minute, but I’ve been thinking about you.  And it’s with great tenderness I craft this newest essay.  This will (hopefully) be the first of three new posts to go up within 24 hours, and will (again, hopefully) kick off a return to regularly scheduled programming here on this blog.  Tonight I’ll be putting up a remembrance of a great Austin band that no longer exists, and in trying to document the inherent tragedy and strife that followed Bankrupt and the Borrowers, I’ll be laying out some emotion here for the world. With their name as a signifier, Bankrupt and the Borrowers may have held the best indexical relationship in modern music.

It’s completely a fluke I ever heard about Bankrupt and the Borrowers in the first place.  The band never had a record deal, rarely toured outside of the greater Austin area, and as far as I’m aware none of my friends were also listening to the band back in 2009 when I was on a family vacation down in the Texas state capital trying desperately to convince my parents to take us to one of downtown Austin’s plentiful rock clubs.  We were in the live music capital of the world, and I wanted to go see a show.

It didn’t happen, but scanning the paper for acts with potential had taken me across a video of a Bankrupt and the Borrowers song.  From its opening chords I was taken to a fantastically angsty, raw-ly emotional depth of blues- the music and lyrics both evoked a point where things were so grim that you just had to crack a weak half-smile and keep drifting towards the next day’s depression.  It wasn’t uplifting stuff, but the feelings in it were great catharsis.  This is something I’ve remembered in tough times and called back upon when the darkness needed a way out.

Bankrupt and the Borrowers didn’t fabricate those echoes of bottoming out.  In the mid-oughts three young men with international roots met by happenstance in New England and decided to become a band and be very poor together.  Jesse “Cadger” Moore, Blue “Deadweight” Mongeon, and Jon “Baggage” Pettis eventually found themselves in Austin, apparently by virtue of its plentiful work for musicians and cheap housing.  The trio found a punk drummer in James “Osteo” Taylor and settled in to a neighborhood of artists in East Austin, blending dirty, grungy rock with the type of blues that seems to take strength from hopelessness.  They were also broke.  I bring this last bit up to really hammer home the point and spotlight its importance to the group; from the get-go, Bankrupt and Borrowers listed the lack of funds as a musical and lyrical influence, and the band members’ poverty is evident in their work from the low-quality home recordings they pieced together to the reckless desperation of their live shows.  Bankrupt and the Borrowers lived up to their name by staying true to their passions and feeding those passions off of the detrimental lifestyle other aspects of their lives had led to.

To my knowledge, Bankrupt and the Borrowers only released one set of recordings, a home-recorded EP entitled Beers on the Bible.  The band has a distinct and original sound, flipping the switch from simmering rock and jangly blues to the wailing guitars and strained voices of a grungy and particularly angry breed of rock music.  While the group lists their socio-economic circumstances and geographic locations as food for musical thought, the individual members’ backgrounds and tastes are easily in view.  Guitarist and sometime Vocalist “Cadger” studied blues guitar, while bassist and vocalist “Deadweight” brings an indie rock sensibility to the group.  Rounded out by multi-instrumentalist “Baggage”‘s interest in horn arrangements and “Osteo”‘s history as an Austinite punk drummer, Bankrupt and the Borrowers touches on several genres, each of which fits nicely in step with the topical themes of their music.

Beers on the Bible covers an emotional range that typically oscillates between depression and rage.  The vocals and guitar arrangements in particular reflect a certain disconsolate thrashing that instantly calls to mind someone who might not be in a great state of mind.  Even songs about lovers (“I Love you Baby“, “Katie Anne“) and their homebase on Austin’s East side (“Home“, “Dumpster“) can make lyrics that would otherwise come across as neutral at worst sound filled with intense (and yes, typically negative) emotions.  This does make the music decidedly dark, and Bankrupt and the Borrowers rarely seem to have happy news to share, but it adds an emotional complexity that sounds earnest enough to give the listener the idea that harsh truths are being shared.  Tracks from the EP such as “TCB” and “The Cat” benefit from this earnest emotional openness, as unclear lyrics still betray a kind of romantic desolation, squealing guitars and frantic drums mimicking the chaos of the bandmates’ lives.

And all of this brings me to the band’s most frequently-mentioned tune, an epic blues number ambitiously titled “Holden Caulfield at 35“.  In a rare behind-the-scenes interview, the band allows that the song takes inspiration from an imagined drugs-and-women-fueled weekend on the Mexican border for the now-approaching middle-aged narrator of “The Catcher in the Rye”, but more so betrays that even when they attempted to write a happy song the resulting subject matter betrays the reason why so many of their songs seem to tell miserable stories.  Musically the song throws the kitchen sink at Caulfield’s passed out friend Rosie, slowly climbing from a solo guitar riff to add whistling, harmonica, three vocalists delivering verses, and the eventual heavily-stomping coda that features an elegiac trumpet solo over the refrain “I’m still smilin’ all the same”.  It’s a powerful track, and followers of the band responded in kind: in the aforementioned interview, the band noted that at the time the track wasn’t recorded and fans at shows were singing along to every word.  Glimpsing a moment of validation, the musicians that comprised Bankrupt and the Borrowers could take some solace in the fact that they were writing music that fans connected with and could empathize with- real music.


The sad tale of the Bankrupt and the Borrowers, however, only continues in tragedy. Seemingly just as the group was staking a claim on the music scene in a town that can easily swallow an artist and replace him with five more, tragedy struck the group in a very real way.  In the early morning on October 9, 2009, a power strip in the home the band shared on the Northeast side of town malfunctioned and started a fire.  Within minutes the house was ablaze, and the one functional fire alarm was insufficient warning.  Jon Pettis, a multi-instrumentalist who took duties as a vocalist, guitarist, and player of several brass instruments for Bankrupt and the Borrowers died as the house burned down around him.  Pettis’ life, as those of his friends and bandmates, had been trending upward; the group was consistently booking shows, touring, and making new connections.  Just before the deadly house fire that took one of the bandmembers’ life, Bankrupt and the Borrowers had been announced as a marquee artist for Austin’s annual Fun Fun Fun Fest.

That show would prove to be the final concert for Bankrupt and the Borrowers as such, and would be dedicated as a benefit for the survivors of Jon “Baggage” Pettis in the wake of his sudden and unexpected passing.

  The surviving members of Bankrupt and the Borrowers have continued performing in and around the Austin area with a collective of down-on-their-luck musicians who go by the name of East Cameron Folkcore.  This new project has even had its story told by a local documentary filmmaker who wanted to recount the origin of the group as a companion to their second full-length album, The Sun Also Rises.  Meanwhile, little remains of Bankrupt and the Borrowers other than poignant memorials to the group.  Myspace, Facebook, and blogspot pages for the group are still live, though inactive, and the group’s official website is off the web.  For me though, this is a band that I didn’t even get to see play, and I mostly listen to them through Myspace streams and youtube clips.  And somehow that is still enough to get across the intense emotions of pain and loss that followed the group from their inception and seem just as appropriate now, almost three years after their last performance.  Nobody is listening to Bankrupt and the Borrowers right now, and to be honest many people don’t need to very often.  But the unfiltered and unrefined pain that the group was able to translate from their meager means into arresting music makes the group a potent listen, and their tragic story is fascinating and gut-wrenching enough to be shared as often as their songs.

“I’m still smilin’ all the same…”