Audio-Visual Part 1: East Cameron Folkcore’s ‘For Sale’

Every once in a while music brings people together and provides for really exciting creative forces to flow.  I only endorse such a cheesy sentiment because I witness that matchmaker power music has over people all the time.  I’ve dived into the cliché barrel on this occasion because the past few months have brought me some exciting feedback from the important people I mention on this page, and this weekend I took  my rock journalism act on the road to shed some light on Austin, Texas’ East Cameron Folkcore.

This specific story begins back in October when I profiled another Austin-based outfit, Bankrupt and the Borrowers, here on this site.  I inadvertently misnamed a member of the band and was duly corrected, but in those exchanges I established correspondence with a few people close to both that band and East Cameron Folkcore.  I was informed that the group would soon be releasing a new album of material and that a release party would be held in Austin in early 2013.  I was to be invited as press.

East Cameron Folkcore released their first recorded work in 2011, and the band has swelled into a collective in an amusingly symmetrical fashion to the dynamic profile many of their songs take.  Blending folk, punk, and blues (with dashes of grunge, doo-wop, and carefully-orchestrated noise), the group sounds as though a large folk band just kept turning the volume knobs up until they were screaming over everything.  This works incredibly well, and honestly beggars questions about how lines aren’t more frequently drawn between folksy protest songs and hard-nosed punk; it seems that the two genres have historically been mutually appreciative and share goals, but it’s rare to hear such a simple fusion performed.

With the brand new full-length For Sale released this past week, the listener has the treat of partaking of just such a fusion.  The album begins with an anti-establishment rail against “the machine” and seems a perfectly timely continuation of Occupy Wall Street ideals.  East Cameron Folkcore have seemingly taken their protest songs to the rally itself for this record and proceeded to crank their amps up to be heard over unionists and countless thousands drowning in government-subscribed debt.  For Sale‘s album cover is brandished with a sign inviting buyers to make an offer on the Texas State Capitol, and the not-so-subtle exhaustion with government apparatuses is clear from the get-go.

Bankrupt and the Borrowers seemed to perfectly the embody of the struggling independent rocker, and East Cameron Folkcore singer-guitarists Jesse Moore and Blue Mongeon (formerly of Bankrupt and the Borrowers) have carried that sentiment into their new project with the added benefit of solidarity.  In a band whose lineup can stretch into double digits a voice or a stringed instrument can easily be lost, but the subject matter that the group covers on For Sale lends itself to letting a group of likeminded fellows air their grievances simultaneously.  With four lead singers stepping to and fro over the shifting many-headed monster of instrumentalists, East Cameron Folkcore have improved upon the solitary protest singer strumming his acoustic guitar by inviting all of the other protesters on stage as well.

The tracks on For Sale are an interesting listen, especially given their musical variety.  “Enemy of the Times” is a punk-rock tune through-and-through, while “Robin Hoods Rise” and “Humble Pie” would be equally straight-ahead punk anger if not for 6/8 swaying in the case of the former and a slow descent into a New Orleans stomp to bring the latter to a climax.  The Moore-led “Salinger is Dead” is as close to the platonic ideal of folk-punk as is possible, with arpeggiated guitar riffs and downcast lyrics giving way to a shout-along chorus with gang vocals and mandolin strumming.  The diversity of the band’s members and the committee approach they’ve taken to lead vocal duty give some unexpected turns; “Chasing the Devil” gives Mongeon a chance to take the volume and tempo down (only to bring both up again) in order to give thanks that his friends are on the same tough road, “Don’t Choke” gives screamer Allen Dennard a chance to echo Man Man’s scruffy take on doo-wop songs, and “Director’s Cut” is singer/trombonist Blake Bernstein’s folksy ballad with a helplessly catchy refrain that “we’re all going to hell.”  Rounding out the record are the menacing rocker “Worst Enemy“; the wistful tune for the oppressed and forgotten in “Ophelia“; and “$allie Mae“, (ostensibly) a song about a break-up with a cruel mistress.

East Cameron Folkcore’s For Sale works well because enough of its political subversion is cloaked in mixed metaphors and literary references that listening to the crashing drums, long-drawn cello, and wailing troop of weary Austinites doesn’t immediately betray the subject matter.  Having said that, the depth and scope of the band’s anger and frustration is evident before a close examination of the lyrics is necessary, and the music works in tandem with words spoken and yelled to give the whole affair the feel of something brewing just underneath the surface of our current society.  For Sale seems to exist at an important juncture in American life at which the impoverished and desperate have decided that they’ve had enough and are saying something about how they’ve been treated.  In East Cameron Folkcore’s case the rally cries aren’t only shouted, they are crooned and plucked and strummed and bowed.  Living as we all are in a political-economic climate that is as tenuous as a drum stick in the hand of a heavy-hitting punk drummer, East Cameron Folkcore’s For Sale marries the joy of solidarity with the righteous anger of the downtrodden to produce an auditory demonstration that marches straight up to that machine reference in the opening soundbite and lies across the tracks demanding to be heard.

Part II, in which I recount the veritable production that was For Sale‘s release party Friday night, is coming soon. For Sale is currently available via East Cameron Folkcore’s website as a pay-what-you-want download with proceeds benefitting any of 13 different charities or nonprofit organizations.

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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…”