Saturday, 16 July 2016

Record Review - Seratones

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, July 15.

Get Gone
Fat Possum Records / Inertia

Released on the legendary Fat Possum label, which this year celebrates 25 years, the debut cut from Louisiana quartet Seratones doesn’t waste time getting to the point. The punk aesthetic of Chokin’ On Your Spit kicks off a record which brings together not only three chord thunder but a slew of roots influence befitting a group based in the thriving music town of Shreveport, a crossroads of sorts for blues, country and soul sounds – Get Gone is a mish-mash, and it works extremely well.

Produced by Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers, North Mississippi Allstars, Buddy Guy), the album is for the most part a high-octane affair, vocalist AJ Haynes’ voice a velvety beast capable of New York grit ‘n’ spit, howls and croons, the perfect foil to the ever-changing sounds she’s riding over. Guitar, bass and drums provide same, easily handling the punk (Chokin’, Sun), the garage rock (Trees, Don’t Need It), seamlessly slipping into hazy evening mode (the title track) then finishing with the slow and dreamy Keep Me. It’s a record which covers a lot of ground with scruffy aplomb, a new rock ‘n’ roll sound.

Samuel J. Fell

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Profile Review - Sweet Jean

Published in the July / August issue of Rhythms magazine

Sweet Jean
Monday To Friday
ABC Music / Universal

Sweet Jean’s 2013 debut, Dear Departure, painstakingly put together by Sime Nugent and Alice Keath, garnered the Melbourne-based pair widespread acclaim and rightly so. The album, as I noted in my review for Rhythms upon its release, “…[while] rooted in the gothic folk music the pair know so well, transcends same, mining a rich vein of old-school pop, making it an album which combines the two to great effect.”
I certainly wasn’t the only one singing its praises – Paul Kelly said of the record it was, “Dreamy, epic, wry, tender.” High praise indeed, for an extremely good piece of work.

And so, just shy of three years later, Nugent and Keath follow up with Monday To Friday, and to say they’ve bested anticipation would be an understatement. For this record again transcends – it transcends expectation and the notion of the tricky second album, but more importantly, it transcends the plane these two were initially inhabiting. Monday To Friday is an album which soars, a glorious pop gem that gets warmer, darker, more lush the more you listen, an extension to what they were able to achieve with their debut.

“Most of the songs were written in our home studio, which informed the songwriting and production,” says Keath on this evolution. “We had a carefully considered approach to the production on Dear Departure, drawing on specific references from trad folk to contemporary albums. Our approach for Monday To Friday was a lot more intuitive, with the songs and the sounds developing side by side.”

“We would build a landscape and push the song and its protagonists across that landscape, rather than write in a more linear way,” adds Nugent.

With the addition of John Castle who co-produces, as well as adding myriad instrumentation (drums, bass, guitars, clarinet, keys and synth), Nugent and Keath have found a sonic soulmate able to read their many musical moods and add to them in a way which does nothing other than enhance. The songs are full and real (made all the more so given, lyrically, Monday To Friday is about, “…some of the significant and insignificant things that are rolling around us,” as opposed to the “…other people in other times and places,” they’d written about previously), they’re their own beings, all of them brought to wondrous life at the hands of these three artists.

“There was a lot of fiction on our first album,” Nugent confirms, “other people’s stories from other time and other places. We wanted to keep Monday To Friday in the here and now – whether that’s pointing to the stars or trying to hail a taxi. We think it’s a bit of both most days.”

For mine, the standout track on the record is ‘Main Street’. A slow strum to open before Keath’s voice drifts in, the initial verse slow before Castle builds the beat and the song blooms with Keath’s refrain, “I’m ready for a fight / I’m ready for a rumble tonight.” It’s truly one of the most melodic and quietly powerful tracks you’ll hear.

The rest of Monday To Friday is just as strong – ‘Slow’ begins with a solitary guitar twang, soon enveloped by dreamy soundscape; ‘I See Stars’, all vocal harmonies, perhaps the closest track to the American roots music both have shown an affinity with in the past; ‘All I Know’, to close, melding electric and acoustic guitars, Nugent’s voice simple and downturned, the song coming together effortlessly.

The melding of guitars is prominent throughout the record, but none of the instrumentation steps on the vocals, instruments in themselves. “We’ve intentionally used quite straightforward language for this album, and that suits having the vocals front and centre in the songs,” says Keath. “Experimenting with different ways to place the two vocals in the music was a big part of putting together this album.”

And so the instrumentation, from which the voices grow, is there to create, to borrow from Kelly, a dreamy, epic, wry and tender soundscape – sometimes jagged, sometimes smooth-edged, always in the right mind, the right place, the right time. Monday To Friday is a stellar release, the finest in alterative rock / pop you’re likely to find anywhere. Samuel J. Fell

For more information, head to Sweet Jean's website here

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Feature - Fat Possum Records

Published in the July / August issue of Rhythms magazine

Founded in 1991, FAT POSSUM RECORDS this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. For a quarter century though, it’s been anything but normal, writes SAMUEL J. FELL

I don’t know when I first heard T-Model Ford. I remember how it made me feel though. Like I wanted – nay, needed – to fight, fuck and forget all at once. Guttural and shit-stained, all piss and bile, the music barely hung together by the skin of its teeth as it rumbled along all fractured and fucked up, so close to slipping off the rails but managing to cling on until the song ended with a rattle of a laugh, a guitar twang, the out-of-time thump of a snare drum.

I loved it.

T-Model Ford
I loved RL Burnside too, whether he was by himself or immersed within the punk blues the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion trafficked in, their 1996 collaboration, A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, an eye-opening revelation for me. A few years ago, I was introduced to the music of Junior Kimbrough and I loved him too. Their music was hypnotic and droning, trance-like, thumping and riding off a primal beat, a far cry from the acoustic folk blues players, even the electric guys. This was something else entirely. Ragged and raw. No one seemed to give a goddamn. It was beautiful in a way.

All those guys are dead now. They were outlaws – drinkers, murderers, miscreants –  and it’s amazing some of them lived as long as they did. Burnside died from a heart attack in 2005. Ford died of respiratory failure in 2013. Kimbrough also died from a heart attack, allegedly leaving behind 38 children. They were outlaws and it came through in their music.

It was this music that also captured, firstly the ear, but then the heart of a young man named Matthew Johnson. In 1991, in his early 20s, Johnson and fellow Living Blues writer Peter Redvers-Lee founded Fat Possum Records, the now legendary indie label which championed these outlaw bluesmen, which brought them the fame and, ultimately, money, that they deserved. Or at least coveted.

This year marks 25 years since Johnson and Lee founded the label, a quarter century of highs and lows, of bringing this blues to the people in a variety of forms and stylistic mash-ups. It’s been anything but normal, anything but boring.

“It was recording RL Burnside, that’s all it was,” recounts Johnson on why the pair started Fat Possum. “I did not think it was gonna work, you know what I mean? I would have called [the label] something better, I wouldn’t have called it the stupid name that it got.”

He laughs when he says this, then adds, “We wanted it to be like, rock records. All that [old blues] stuff, people were very precious and that’s not what we were about at all, obviously. You know, we were like, screw this. We wanted it to be more of a rock ‘n’ roll thing.”

Which is exactly what it was. Records like Burnside’s A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, which was licenced to Matador, was pure rock ‘n’ roll. A slew of the label’s other releases were hard and electric, droning and dirty, nothing like any of the other blues stuff going around.. This hard-driving, hard-drinking, foot-to-the-floor style of the music was all these bluesmen knew, and so Johnson and the label tried to harness that.

“There was something that was missing,” Johnson explains. “There were all these folklorists… big fat guys with a vest on, with cameras and shit, right? Everything was like, ‘Oh, this is a legend’. I was like, these guys aren’t gettin’ it – these [artists] are so much rowdier and more insane… fuck that, so that’s when we started putting [these guys] with Jon Spencer, or Iggy Pop, or The Beastie Boys or shit like that.”

“It got a lot wackier, I’m kinda proud of all that. I’ve been taken to task about the [purity of blues] which I thought was funny, I don’t care,” he goes on, his enthusiasm taking hold. “You know, no one will play acoustic if there’s an electric guitar there, for the most part, you know? The fact all those guys were being made to play acoustic because that was tradition and shit, that’s kinda bullshit, that’s not right. I was like, why should the kids have the Marshall stacks, and they don’t? So that’s the first thing we got, with RL.”

This is what set Fat Possum apart from the get-go. They quickly made for themselves a reputation for not conforming in any way, shape or form, which is why they’re so highly regarded today. The blues they were working with was different to begin with, but they took it further - there were hip hop hybrids, punk hybrids, rock ‘n’ roll hybrids. These artists began to cross over, picking up fans in the unlikeliest of places. The label’s reputation grew.

Despite this, they’ve never really made any money over the years (they were funded by Epitaph in the mid ‘90s, saving them from certain death), but they’ve always managed to keep afloat. There’ve been a few events which have also helped – signing The Black Keys early on in their career; securing the rights to Al Green’s back catalogue. For the most part though, it’s not been easy.

“I’m not really sure, to be honest,” Johnson laughs when I ask why he never called it quits, why the label is still here after 25 years. “Epitaph and The Black Keys [saved us] as we were teetering on the edge… I hope we still have relevance today, I mean, we’ve had to change our game. I do miss those guys a lot. We still have some guys, like Fat White Family, to carry the torch of RL Burnside.”

According to Johnson, there’s nothing happening in rural Mississippi these days. Not like back then, no one of the ilk of Burnside, Kimbrough, Ford, Fred McDowell, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Johnny Farmer. “RL’s gone, Junior’s gone, all the stuff I liked is gone,” he concurs. “The people who learned it and had those crappy jobs, the real-deal guys, they’re all gone. [Today’s kids] don’t care, they’re doing the hip hop thing, and I get it. They think it’s a white person’s thing.”

He pauses after he says this. I get the impression that despite the hardships he would have endured dealing with these artists, (“It was basically like chaos theory,” he laughs at one point), he misses the fucked up unpredictability of it all, not to mention the raw power of the music itself, now only existing, gathering dust, in the label’s vaults. It’s sad in a way. Sad that these renegades have died out and there’s no one to replace them.

The label itself of course, has managed to survive, essentially by expanding their sonic horizons. Their signing of The Black Keys is well documented, as is their work with Iggy Pop, Solomon Bourke and Dinosaur Jr. It’s fair to say they’re still known as a blues label, but these days Fat Possum has many different fingers, in many different pies.

“A lot of it was necessity,” Johnson explains on this sonic expansion over the past decade and a half. “[And] it has to be bands that I like, that’s the only criteria. There’s something about all of these bands, The Districts are one of my favourites, and I love Seratones. We just had to evolve, or it would just get kinda old, you know?”

Now home to the likes of the lo-fi rock of Sunflower Bean; the roots/rock hybrid that is Seratones; the unhinged punk roots of Fat White Family; the country of The Felice Brothers; Jon Spencer’s disjointed side-project Heavy Trash, Fat Possum has indeed changed its focus. What hasn’t changed though, is the quality of the acts that call the label home – sure, it’s different music, it’s not as hectic and chaotic as it would have been in the early ‘90s, but Fat Possum is still very much alive, still very much focused on what they see as good music.

“I hope so,” Johnson says after some thought, on whether the label has another 25 years in it. “I mean, hopefully we’re not gonna undo what we’ve managed to accomplish so far.” He laughs again here, and then lapses into silence before adding, “It’s gotten so damn hard… for a while things were flying off the shelves, not hugely, but you know…”

The label’s motto is ‘We’re Trying Our Best’, which says it all really. That’s what they’ve been doing since 1991, and even as the record industry continues to slip and slide, they’ll keep on trying their best. It’s why they’ve survived as long as they have – an unflinching belief in the music they’re working with, regardless of any outside influence. Just like the lurching, jangling, fucked up outlaw bluesmen they originally championed.

For more information on Fat Possum and its roster, head to

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Record Review - Matt Malone

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, July 8.

Matt Malone
Heart Of The Rat Records

A “unique fusion of the traditional and avant-garde” is how Matt Malone’s debut album is described, and for once it’s not merely publicity hot air. Stripped and bare in the outlaw country tradition but with the menace and slow stabbing guitar of a Rowland S Howard special, S.I.X is all doom and gloom, sometimes whispered sometimes bursting from Malone’s throat all spittle and bile. He’s not afraid of space, of shimmer, of spotlighting his wavering, slightly grotesque wail.

The Beast, an eleven minute epic, chugs along slowly courtesy of the acoustic guitar riff while electric shimmers paint the background black as Malone intones over the top, his voice the instrument bringing the song to its couple of climaxes. Haunting backing vocals. The song seems to stop a couple of times in the middle but then rebirths and carries on. Maldoror begins with the crackling of a low fire, builds slowly, Malone’s vocal ragged as old cloth, building to an electric fuzz. Revelation Law is perhaps the most country song on the record, but it’s fractured and broken, somehow rebuilt into something which makes an eerie sense. Which is an apt way to describe the entire record – dissonant, cracked, haunted. Fantastic.

Samuel J. Fell