Written by 4:45 am Audiophile Music

American Squirms : New Music From The U.S.A.

Mark Smotroff explores some music by musical patriots…

As a music writer, the biggest hurdle in putting together an album review is often simply finding “the angle” for the story.  Some albums write the reviews themselves. Others, take a bit of finesse to piece together an article which people like you, Dear Readers, might actually want look at. 

So, with that in mind…

I was pleased to learn that The dBs’ Peter Holsapple was coming out with a solo single, his first new solo music in many a year.  When I received the review copy and saw the cover art, I realized that perhaps it might be time to look at some politically themed recordings or at least some that have a patriotic flair to them… 

Looking in my “to review” bin, I realized I had at least two good companion candidates to craft what we sometimes call a “round up” review; a theme connects the three releases somewhat thematically. 

Ta Da! The elusive “angle” appeared!

So, here we go on a little journey across some difference faces and facets of the 21st Century American experience by way of a trio of mini reviews of fine new (or newer-ish, if you will) music by some artists you may know of or perhaps have forgotten about.  Either way, they are worthy of your attention.  And if you click on the sub-headers here it will take you to places where you can buy (and / or listen to) the music.  

Let the journey begin:


AR-PeterHolsapple45Cover225.jpgLongtime original member of The dBs, former REM sideman (he played keyboards on some of their tours) and the once-husband of no less than the great Susan Cowsill, singer-songwriter Peter Holsapple comes out swinging in 2017 with a darkly poignant American character study, issued initially in the form a classic 45 RPM single.  But its not the type of power pop song you might expect from his dBs days. No, Peter’s new single comes face-to-face with some heavy issues impacting many Americans, a topic something that is rarely discussed from the musical side of things. 

“Don’t Mention The War” is a loving profile of an aging Uncle suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and how it affects his nephew (with whom he lives). 

Wow… heavy indeed…  but oh so beautiful too… 

If Levon Helm was still with us, I suspect he’d want to sing this one in a heartbeat as it sounds like a lost track by The Band — and I mean that as the highest of complements, mind you. Replete with tearful Tuba bass lines and somber-yet-uplifting funereal march pacing, with gorgeous acoustic and stinging electric guitars in hand here Mr. Holsapple layers up the dark realities impacting many of our soldiers’ lives after service.  

Powerful stuff here… not just heavy… 

And if this is just the tip of the iceberg — as Holsapple is reportedly working on a new solo album — I suspect his new album is going to be pretty grand.  If you haven’t heard his work with the dBs, you really should look them up.  Their last album from 2012 was an outstanding collection of melodic and flavorful rock pop gems (which I reviewed for another publication at the time).  

I’m very much looking forward to Peter’s new record when its done. Great stuff. 


AR-WrecklessAmericaCover225.jpgI reconnected musically with Wreckless Eric in 2016 when he played a solo show here in San Francisco. I don’t know quite how he got off my radar, but I had absolutely no idea about his post Stiff Records career. 

Life happens, right?  

Well I was so pleased to get a chance to see him live — great show! — and buy some new albums directly from him.  My friend Doug who was also there at the show urged me to get the album called AmERICa, so that was one of the two I bought and I am not disappointed. 

Even though it came out in 2015, it is a timely study which allows us to catch up with Mr. Goulding (Wreckless Eric’s real name) since he was Top of the Pops in Britain’s New Wave class of 1977-78.  But mostly AmERICa gives us a look at modern day American suburban experience from a man with a unique perspective : and English one — you see, he’s been living in upstate New York for many years apparently.  

Certainly, tracks like “White Bread” and “Sysco Trucks” are appropriately scathing snapshots on America suburban living (anyone who has spent any time outside a major city has seen the Sysco food service trucks all over).  Lyrically, like a great Lou Reed album, lines on America jump out at you as if he is singing to you personally.  “Several Shades of Green” plays like his personal re-visit of The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man” with its own personal horror stories of the star making machinery (“Every day I saw things I wished I’d never seen.”)    

Listening to how good this album sounds, it is kind of amazing is to learn that the album was recorded at in Eric’s home! From Wreckless Eric’s Bandcamp web page “Eric recorded the album in his ramshackle house in upstate New York: amplifiers in the kitchen, in the hallway, bass amp in the guest bedroom, microphones up the staircase, speaker cabinets in doorways, frenetic bursts of guitar feedback exploding out of the kitchen… He’s been living like this for years…”

Accordingly, the album does have a great loose, natural feel, at times evoking ghost of his past and other band, especially The Velvet Underground.  Heck, only Wreckless Eric could offer up documentary like song about “Boy Bands” which morphs into an epic conclusion referencing a melodic phrase from Dylan’s “Its All Over Baby Blue.”  

“Have a Great Day” closes the album with a plaintive folk ramble based on a similar two chord prayer on many of the touchstones of modern American pop culture :  “Have a Nice Day, so they say. These colors don’t run, so they say. Fun Fun Fun. Chuck Berry, The Velvet Underground, Jimmy Reed, The Beach Boys and the Goldstar sound…”  

The vinyl pressing is really nice, clean and dark vinyl, well centered and dead quiet. High quality indie rock by one of the original British new wave voices? Heck yes! What more can one ask for?  

Great stuff. Modern rock with underground folk pop edges. Or is that modern underground pop with folk rock edges?  Or perhaps underground modern folk with modern pop edges? Take your pick.  


AR-WillieNileAmericanRide225.jpgIn the world of Facebook, some curious things have happened for me musically. One is my awareness of an artist whom I liked back in the early 80s who I thought had also disappeared after his major label (Arista Records) contract ended. In the past few years, posts from New York based rocker singer songwriter Willie Nile have begun popping up and I’ve been keeping an eye on what he’s been doing. 

You see, on the East Coast, he’s still a pretty popular performer. I’ve even seen pix posted of him performing with Bruce!  Anyhow, I had been thinking of picking up one of Willie’s albums for some time and recently found one out here in California (brand new but at a reduced price at a book store in Berkeley of all places!). So it was a no brainer to pick it up.  

The cool thing is that it immediately sounds like a Willie Nile record, so he gets brownie points for consistency — I admit to have not really been listening to his stuff since his days on Arista, so I have a lot of catching up to do!  

Willie’s current band on American Ride (his album from 2013) is pretty smokin’ and musically diverse, as they track different sides of the New York experience (such as the uplifting “Sunrise in New York City” and “I Live On Bleeker Street”).   For the purposes of our thematic round up I have to mention the title song which pays tribute to the America so few of us actually take the time to experience, a road trip with Willie driving our fair country’s extensive highways. “American Ride” looks at all that our country has to offer in more of a wishful dream than the escapist plea of Springsteen’s “Born To Run” — this is more about turning off the television and seeing all that the US has to offer first hand… all the stuff of the American dream.  Its a lovely tune.   

There is even a killer cover of Jim Carrol’s “People Who Died” here, which was a big surprise.  

The LP sounds great. The standard weight vinyl is well pressed and quiet.  And the music jams. I’ll definitely be taking more rides with Willie on this album and checking out his latest World War Willie.

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