Kelly Jean Caldwell Returns to the Outer Limits Stage to Celebrate Birdie LP

Kelly Jean Caldwell is not dead. The singer, songwriter, and owner-operator of Hamtramck’s Outer Limits Bar and record label laughs as she tells me a rumor of her death has been swirling around town. “The other day, someone at the bar was asking what’s the next show coming up,” she explains, “and they [the bartender] were like, ‘oh it’s the Kelly Jean Caldwell/Loose Koozies record release show, and the person was like, ‘Oh, I thought Kelly Jean Caldwell died.’” Conversely, Caldwell is one of the liveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to. A mother of two, she gracefully floats between answering my questions and ogling a unicorn drawing made by her daughter, Birdie, the namesake of her latest record.

Although Birdie was released in December of 2020, the record never received a proper release show due to the pandemic. So, this Saturday, June 12, Caldwell will finally play the record live at Outer Limits, joined by Monica Plaza and best friends and label mates, the Loose Koozies. Originally scheduled for last July, Caldwell explains that this show feels like a triumphant return after a year and a half of playing alone or to a computer screen. In a similar way, Birdie feels like a triumphant return to the studio after her last album release, Downriver, in 2016. She says that this record finds her at her strongest as a musician, person and a mother. “I am getting older I’m getting stronger, I’m a better musician, I’m a better lyricist,” Caldwell explains. “I feel like I’ve definitely come up as a musician. I’m more confident than ever.”

Part of this transformation is owed to Caldwell’s deeper exploration of the flute over the last few years. “My flute teacher changed my life,” she says. Though she’s played flute for years, Caldwell says taking lessons completely changed her perspective on the instrument and songwriting in general. She was pushed to go outside her comfort zone and learn things she hadn’t tried before, like reading music and playing classical songs. After months of practicing three hours a day, Caldwell’s lessons culminated in a classical flute recital at Outer Limits where she donned her wedding dress and played a full classical repertoire accompanied by friends.

This transformative experience, in tandem with all the frightening and beautiful events that accompany motherhood, helped shape the colorful sound that characterizes Birdie. The album’s title track opens with swooping layered flute melodies, reminiscent of the magic and innocence of childhood. “All those ’70s rockers have songs about their daughters but you’re not sure if it’s about their lover or their dog,” Caldwell laughs. “I was like, ‘I wanna write one like that… a creepy song about my kid.’” But, honestly, the song leans more towards tear-jerky than creepy, especially when guided by Caldwell’s instinctively poetic lyrics.

She opens the song with a dreamy description of motherly love – “Sunshine follows my flower all the time/Blue eyes water my dreams ‘til summertime.” The song then opens up into a ’60s rock-type tempo, seemingly mirroring the fast-paced and sometimes chaotic rhythm of parenting. Bright guitars and Caldwell’s vivid depictions welcome the listener into a world of vibrant colors and endless possibilities. You can imagine Caldwell running around in the backyard with her daughter, blowing bubbles and creating their own world together, especially when she sings, “She’s got glitter in her hair/She grows flowers everywhere.” She’s able to capture these moments of pure happiness like a firefly in a jar and distill them into a few simple lines.

But, ever the honest songwriter, Caldwell makes room for both the precious and ominous sides of motherhood in Birdie. She explains that “SIDS,” one of the most musically upbeat sounding tracks on the record, is about being terrified that her son was going to pass away in his sleep. “I was really obsessed with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome,”explains Caldwell. “This was about my son and he obviously survived. But, when you have a new baby, you really, or at least I, felt like they were so close to death. I really felt like they could just switch back to the other side at any moment.” 

Unless you’re really listening, you wouldn’t notice the somber nature of the song, and that’s exactly how Caldwell meant it to be. “I didn’t want it to sound sad because I didn’t want people to worry about me,” says Caldwell. “So it’s probably the most upbeat rockin’ song I’ve ever written.” She explains that channeling her worries into music was the most natural way she knew how. The song’s fuzzy guitars and punchy chorus melody beget a story of hope and tenacity while Caldwell’s trepidatious lyrics ask the morbid question: “Does it call you back/Do the stars attack/Or will the dark dream continue?” 

As a musician who has never been anybody but herself in her songwriting, Caldwell’s vulnerable lyricism allows listeners to connect on a deeper plane. Even if you haven’t experienced motherhood and the anxieties that come with it, you can relate to the paralyzing fear of loss and the euphoric happiness of being with someone you love completely. “I think that, weirdly, the more specific you get about things, the more people relate,” says Caldwell. “The more personal that I make things and the more truthful, the more people feel it.”

Follow Kelly Jean Caldwell on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Alt-Country Artist Tracy McNeil Explores New Beginnings on You Be The Lightning

Photo Credit: Ian Laidlaw

At the beginning of 2020, country singer Tracy McNeil had decided to finally stop dividing her life, giving up her day job as an educator and packing up her belongings to dedicate her life to touring her music. That new chapter began with the February 2020 release of her fifth album You Be The Lightning via celebrated label Cooking Vinyl Australia; it features her Americana-style approach to country, influenced by both her Canadian roots and adopted hometown of Melbourne. While the universe had other plans, necessitating a temporary return to teaching, You Be The Lightning has been critically acclaimed, securing high rotation across mainstream stations ABC Radio & Double J, and community radio airplay across Australia.

Tracy and her five-piece band The GoodLife finished off 2020 by achieving an ARIA Award nomination for Best Blues and Roots Album, an Australian Music Prize nomination, and an award for Best Country Album at the Music Victoria Awards. From April to July this year, McNeil and her band will tour around Australia. It’s not the rollicking, barnstorming tour she may have envisioned when writing You Be The Lightning, but it’s live and loud and that’s redemptive in itself.

You Be The Lightning is a rejuvenation, a rebirth, sparked by a human place, wanting to feel alive and connected the world,” says McNeil. “It’s about really wanting to feel something. It’s not biographical, but it’s inspired by what I was seeing around me in terms of people sleepwalking through life and not recognising their full potential.”

McNeil studied dance in Canada after finishing high school and began doing open mic nights a few years later. This was the beginning of her solo music career; she assembled a band in 2006 for her first album, Room Where She Lives, and at the same time was offered a position in post-graduate studies in Australia. McNeil opted to research the music scene in Melbourne, which conveniently enabled her to network and befriend local musicians including Jordie Lane, Liz Stringer, Steve Hesketh from The Drones, Melbourne singer-songwriter Suzannah Espie, and The Idle Hoes, some of whom went on to appear on McNeil’s records. McNeil organised a few gigs around town, ultimately juggling both study and full-time employment with her fledgling Melbourne music career.

“I moved here in 2007 to do my teaching post-graduate diploma in education,” recalls McNeil. “I was going to go back to Canada ten months later as a performance and dance teacher. However, I ended up teaching in a high school here. In fact, I’m doing some teaching in Brisbane at the moment. It’s a double-life: music and a solid day job as a teacher! I did quit in 2020, which was because I intended on music  being full-time, so I was purely writing music and planning the tour and now I’m doing some short-term teaching work until the tour starts.”

In February last year, just prior to Melbourne’s first lockdown, McNeil lead Dan Parsons (guitar), Bree Hartley (drums), Brendan McMahon (keyboards) and Craig Kelly (bass) into a compelling live set at the Stag and Hunter Hotel in New South Wales’ Newtown. That night, she performed “Drunken Angel,” the track labelmate Lucinda Williams made into a classic on her 1998 album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. McNeil likes to do justice to each song, much as Williams has done her entire career. There is no strict genre that McNeil feels beholden to, apparent in the variety on You Be The Lightning. “There was a Neil Young Harvest-esque vibe on one track, whereas on another we layered up the drums and tracks in a very pop style,” McNeil says.

Recorded live to tape – a mix of analog and digital – at The Aviary Recording Studios over three weekends, You Be The Lightning took over a year to complete. This was due to McNeil’s teaching obligations, but it was also the meticulous layering of overdubs, vocals, guitar, and final touches co-produced with Parsons at the helm. It’s been a time of endings and awakenings for McNeil, whose marriage to a fellow musician (that she prefers not to discuss) ended during the making of the record but created the space in which Parsons and McNeil could fall in love with each other.

“The whole experience was tumultuous,” she admits. “It was a very personal time for me, the making of that record. I recall the tape machine broke during ‘Stars’ and we had to go back and start again. I’ve never had a more emotional rollercoaster ride making a record. It was a vulnerable record in terms of themes and working with Dan to produce it. The whole process of falling out of love and into love made it a crazy time to make this album.”

The songs are largely fictitious, a change in approach after the rawness of grief and healing captured on 2016 album Thieves, which was emotionally and energetically sculpted by the death of her father, Canadian singer-songwriter Wayne McNeil. You Be The Lightning was less of a catharsis and more of a record of her emotional landscape over the four years it took to write, rehearse and finally record the songs she’d labored over.

Parsons has proven the ideal collaborator and partner in every sense. “Dan and I have similar musical taste and we think very much on the same page when it comes to music,” McNeil explains. “Dan is far better than me on articulating how to execute ideas in a way that we can accomplish it in studio. Dan’s the musical director of the band, I would say. I trust him completely, and he trusts me completely.”

The irony, McNeil explains, is that when two artists pursue their dreams, it can have dire consequences for the relationship in the long run. “Being on the road together is romantic on so many levels, but it’s not my first rodeo with being with another artist… it’s hard,” she says. “You’re both chasing an end goal that, if everything goes to plan, would move you away from each other.”

The couple have been writing together, and often played shows as a duo prior to the pandemic, scouting audiences and venues for GoodLife gigs. The forthcoming Australian shows will be a welcome treat to fans who’ve waited to see You Be The Lightning live – not to mention a relief for McNeil, her partner, and her band. “We’re chasing the same target and our dreams merge,” she says. “We really look forward to focusing our energy in one direction for a little while.”

Follow Tracy McNeil & the GoodLife on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Ohtis and Stef Chura Team Up to Take Down Toxic Dudes with “Schatze”

Alt-country outfit Ohtis enlist the voice (and production skills) of beloved Detroit artist Stef Chura for their audio-visual fuckboy call-out “Schatze,” released digitally at the end of January (a 7″ vinyl is available for pre-order ahead of its February 26 release via Saddle Creek). Starting out like a guided meditation accompanied by Fred Thomas’s ambient track “Backstroke,” the brief moment of Zen is promptly squashed by the unrelenting, familiar chimes of an iPhone. The messages come rolling in, narrated by lead singer Sam Swinson – “I do/do what I please/it’s my Shatze/it’s my treasure/it’s not difficult, I do it with ease.” Chura replies to Swinson’s apathetic admission with an appropriate “Fuck you very much sir!” – a line that serves as a mantra throughout the song. 

It’s an appropriate and timely catchphrase for the past few years we’ve had as a country, bleeding from the effects of men who think they can get away with anything. But recently, we’ve also seen slow steps towards a reckoning – lies coming apart at the seams, survivors stepping forward to bring their abusers to justice, and the grand finale of a bigoted predator being removed from office. And although the villain in this song doesn’t exactly sit in that rung of evil, he serves as a symbol of that one guy – or guys, and the toxic culture that enables them – we all know that just really, really sucks.

“It’s a story about a fictional character and his faults. As I see it, crafting this song as a cultural commentary, but through the lens of humanity and humor, makes for a more accessible listening experience,” explains multi-instrumentalist Nate Hahn (pedal steel guitar, guitar, bass, keys, trombone). “We hope that this encourages more people to listen and reflect on the issues explored.” Those issues range from binge-playing video games, cheating on your significant other, and just having a general air of entitlement and indifference to one’s surroundings. “The title is a reference to a friend’s cat who’s a vicious beast of the same name,” adds multi-instrumentalist and producer Adam Pressley. 

Granted, an unruly cat is arguably a much easier beast to tame – or at least tolerate – than the character than Ohtis creates in “Schatze” – a self-obsessed, vape-loving, mask-hating gamer blob that admits things like, “I’m a piece of shit/I just think I’ll get away with it.” Chura’s gritty vocals are the perfect counter to Ohtis’ Frankenstein douche and serve as a sort of accountability angel. She says that the collaboration came together naturally, as Pressley was playing in her band at the time and the two had talked about working together. “We kinda jokingly tossed the idea around about the collaboration,” says Chura. “I really like Sam’s singing voice and was down for it. Then one day they just kind of hit me with the actual song. The rest is rock ‘n’ roll history, baby.” 

Hahn adds that having a female voice on the track was essential to rounding out the song’s message. “From the beginning, it was clear that the story needed to be told from both sides of the relationship,” he says. “We loved working with Stef because she’s a friend of the band and she’s the rockinest.” Aside from contributing her voice, Chura also co-produced the track and prevented the band from “keeping some silly digital DJ Khaled style vocal chopping we had in the track early on in the process,” according to Pressley.

While the song is a slight departure from Swinson’s deeply personal lyricism on Curve of Earth, the character in the song serves as a self-aware caricature of what we can become without actively checking ourselves. “I think it’s incredibly important that everyone takes stock of the way they might act in relationships and how actions could affect other people,” says Swinson. “Hopefully it can bring about some self-reflection in people as to how they could be better to the people around them.”

Outside of the commentary on personal relationships, the song also nods at the fact that white men have historically gotten away with doing evil shit, and a lot of them still do. It also nods at the role – however divisive it can be – that the internet has in unveiling the truth (or spreading lies) about people. The video even sneaks in a text from “Ohtis” reading, “do you liek ariel pink?” a reference to his troubled reputation and recent “cancelling” after he was spotted with John Maus at the pro-Trump rally preceding the insurrection. And while the members of Ohtis are galaxies away from being caught at a MAGA gathering, Swinson admits that they still have work to do when it comes to deconstructing the patriarchy. “There are definitely lingering bits of toxic masculinity from our conditioning that we can still identify and ultimately hope to carve out of ourselves in the process,” he says. “ [We] have no problem being self-deprecating about that.” 

Whatever your opinion on call out/cancel culture may be, this song and video serve as a relevant reflection on the moment we’re in – a chaotic e-landscape swirling with accusations, accountability, and assholes. For the listener, maybe it’s an opportunity to reflect on how you act in your relationships. Maybe it’s just an excuse to say “fuck you very much sir” a lot. For me, it’s both, and I’m better for it.

Follow Ohtis (via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and Stef Chura (via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) for ongoing updates.

5 Thought-Provoking Songs on Forthcoming Ruston Kelly LP Shape & Destroy

Photo Credit: Alexa King

With his new album Shape & Destroy, available on August 28, Ruston Kelly embraces his self-described “dirt-emo” sound while demonstrating a mastery of the written word. Kelly has crafted a thoughtful and meaningful sophomore album that extends his reign as an alt-country king, established by his critically acclaimed 2018 debut, Dying Star. The new project is the product of Kelly’s sharp mind and expert lyricism that culminate in 13 songs – here are some of the most thought-provoking moments.


From one fan to another: close your eyes when you press play on “Alive” and allow the peaceful melody and Kelly’s words to take you inside his visions of flowers rising from the rubble and peering through a telescope at a clear blue sky – two of the many examples he provides of what makes life worth living. The song also serves as a tribute to the person who makes his experience here on earth even more pure-hearted while reinforcing the idea of immersing oneself in the simple beauties of life that exists around them – “what a beautiful moment to be alive” indeed.

Best lyric: “Front porch in the silence/Not a sound on the street/And on the horizon/The sun is setting pink/You’re cooking something in the house/Singing John Prine/What a beautiful thing to be alive.”


With “Changes,” Kelly recognizes the struggle that comes with the growing pains that transform us into the next version of ourselves, a struggle he has faced time and time again. The song is a lament of a soul in transition, Kelly bravely asking the person he loves not to give up on him as he finds himself in battle with demons he thought had vanquished, becoming a stranger to himself and the people who know him best. The song comes at a time when many of us are also facing the struggle of letting go of old habits, and as the singer graciously asks for patience and the space to grow into who he’s meant to become, one can’t help but admire his humility.

Best lyrics: “I’m just going through some changes/That don’t mean everything is rearranging.”

 “It’s easier to say than it is to do/To let go of the things I need to lose/To grow out of the old/And take the shape of something new.”


A wise English teacher once told me that quality writing requires you to have a dictionary by your side to look up the words you’re unfamiliar with, something Kelly prompted me to do when listening to “Rubber.” A quick-paced acoustic melody sets the tone for this track that finds the singer observing his own experiences, taking account of his unquenchable desire to pierce through his noise-filled mind and find the solace of silence. He pours the thoughts rattling around into his head onto paper, simultaneously pondering if he’s capable of taking on new shape like that of the material the song lifts its name from.  Upon researching his reference to French thinker Voltaire, it’s clear why he compares himself to the philosopher of the French Enlightenment era who relied on sharp wit and a free spirit to advocate for his beliefs – much like the singer himself.

Best lyric: “And she’s like Agatha Christie/And I’m more like Voltaire/Everything is a theory/Carried away with the morning air.”


Kelly asks the important questions right off the top on “Brave”: “Who am I and how will I be remembered when I die?/What will I leave behind?” These are the kind of questions we all ponder, but Kelly takes it one step further by answering this profound thought with one word. The lyrics find Kelly exploring what it means to be brave by his own definition: a man who stands behind his word, is led by selflessness and above all, values the love he’s surrounded by. These are noble quests we all strive for, yet the earnest nature of Kelly’s voice as he reaches for his higher self pulls the heartstrings in the gentlest way, making for one of the most reflective moments on the project.

Best lyrics: “I stood by every promise that I made/That I tried my best at selflessness/Never took more than I gave/And I didn’t give up to the darkness/I fought with all my might/And I never took for granted/All the love in my life/That’s how I hope I’m remembered when I die.”

“Hallelujah Anyway” 

In merely one minute and 32 seconds, Kelly delivers some of the best poetry featured on the album, as he relays his ideal transition into the afterlife. With his voice echoing through the speakers as if bouncing off the walls of a cathedral, “Hallelujah Anyway” is both a song and a prayer that sees Kelly professing that even in life’s darkest moments, he hopes to maintain the strength to find the light. He calls on pure imagery; being wrapped in a tourniquet of love as he passes from life to death; returning to earth as a flower in bloom that matches “the color of a lovely afternoon.” Backed by a chorus of voices that add haunting effect, Kelly needs only a few lines to deliver his existential message that ends the album with an awe-inspiring testament.

Best lyric: “And even when I go/If I see my soul/Sink below and down into the flames/Hallelujah anyway.”

Follow Ruston Kelly on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Nikki & the Phantom Callers Share “Motor Run”

Photo credit: Jaysen Michael

Nikki & the Phantom Callers have a unique sound that blends alt country with indie rock and old-fashioned ’60s pop. The Atlanta quartet’s latest single, “Motor Run,” embodies this eclectic style; the band refers to it as a “sunny garage-pop anthem with Southern rock swagger.” In the upbeat, catchy track, lead singer and guitarist Nikki Speake’s expressive, rich voice describes the excitement of a long-distance relationship with lyrics like, “Don’t worry honey / I saved all my money / to meet you out on the road.”

Speake has played in a number of other bands, including garage-rock power trio Midnight Larks and the all-girl psych-rock outfit Shantih Shantih. Her current group is about to release its debut LP, Everybody’s Going To Hell (But You and Me), on April 3. We talked to Speake about her new album and the musical, religious, and professional background that’s inspired her work.

AF: What inspired the song “Motor Run”?

NS: This is probably one of my only really light-hearted songs. It’s about a long distance relationship. That type of romance is never meant to last, but is a unique experience of talking and making plans to drive all night, and the thrill of seeing each other when the timing works out. You never get the chance to grow apart, as much as fade away, but you’re more focused on living in the moment.

AF: What else is your new album about?

NS: These are a collection of songs I’ve written over the past 20 years, so it’s not one concentrated theme as much as a journal of my life. I tend to write songs as free therapy, so it’s my way of working through whatever I’m feeling at the time, be it grief or heartbreak.

AF: What’s behind the title of the album?

NS: When I was a registered dietitian at Emory Hospital, I worked in the geriatric dementia and psychiatric ward, and it was a crash course in worst-case mental health issues for me. I would almost every day come back to my cubicle and cry as I wrote charts on my patients. Many days, though, they were so sweet and loving and just appreciated anyone taking the time to talk with them.

One day, when I was checking on the dementia patients, a lady called me over and motioned me to come in close, and she said, “You see all these people?,” pointing around the room, “Everybody’s goin’ to hell, but you and me.” It really floored me, and I never forgot it. I think I told her I was honored. I wrote a song about my time there, with the same title, and wanted to name the album that too. I feel like, in a strange way, it holds hope of solidarity in a world that seems to be falling apart, even more now than ever.

AF: Did your experience as a registered dietician influence your music in other ways?

NS: I am still a registered dietitian, but experienced three layoffs since 2012, my most recent being June of last year. On my last day of work, one of the kitchen staff told me, “This is the Universe’s way of telling you that you’re on the wrong path, so why aren’t you listening?” I really did take that to heart and know that my true love is music, even though I enjoy helping people.

I think being an RD, especially in the hospitals, helped with my music by keeping me grounded and in tune with the issues people have every day; so many are lonely and sick at the same time, and you are really their confidant during those times. It’s one thing to work solely in a creative field, and it’s wonderful, but I do think you can easily become out of touch.

In the end, though, I would often be too emotionally drained to write or play music when I was a clinical RD. I never got used to having patients die, or see their families grieve. That’s why my heart really goes out to all the doctors and healthcare workers, especially during this pandemic.

AF: You play a really unique style and mix of genres — how did you develop it?

I think a lot of it comes from growing up in a small town, before internet, and being curious about music and yearning to hear more than what’s on the radio. Going to Auburn University introduced me to people from all over the world, and their musical influences, and I fell in love with it all. I love country and I love rock and pop; I love it all!

My attention span is too short to pick one thing, but I try to combine it into something unified. That’s why I love playing with [guitarist] Aaron [Mason], [bassist] Anna [Kramer, who also plays in Shantih Shantih], and [drummer] Russell [Owens] so much. We have similar tastes, but different backgrounds, and they are so creative. I feel like the songs would just be shells without us all weaving in our own influences.

AF: How else has your upbringing in rural Alabama figured into your music?

NS: Growing up in a Southern Baptist family and going to church three days a week, that imagery has seeped so deeply into my subconscious; it’s part of me. A lot of it was pretty scary as a kid and lit up my imagination with questions — so much talk of blood, death, sacrificial lambs, eternal torture, and pain in fire and brimstone.

From the get-go, you’re told you’re a sinner and that this life isn’t as important as your afterlife. It was even more prominent in my grandparents’ generation, who were such a huge influence on my life. I remember finding an old photo album with photos of dead relatives at their funerals, but that was common practice back then. My grandmother even has old newspaper clippings of Hank Williams in his casket, so it was a cultural and generational thing. People just don’t do that any more, or want to be remembered that way. So, I guess growing up with this kind of worldview comes out in my songs, but more in a way that recognizes the poetry in the darkness of it all.

Follow Nikki & The Phantom Callers on Facebook for ongoing updates.

ALBUM REVIEW: Haley Bonar “Last War”

Last War is immediately, unmistakably different than any record Haley Bonar‘s made before. Her catalogue is impressive: with ten releases in just ten years, and four full-lengths excluding the newest one, Bonar, pronounced bawn-er, has put a solid stake into her style of dark, quiet, vocal-heavy folk music. Her voice is cradle-rocking singalong, and she tends to end verses in extremely sad-sounding sustained notes that back the bleak lyrics of the lines she’s singing. On her sparsest album, 2006’s Lure The Fox, Bonar’s minimalism crosses over into what feels more like a live recording than anything laid down in a studio. String squeaks and between-verse breath exhalations creep onto the tracks; listening to it is like sitting in Bonar’s lap. That kind of microscopic access to Bonar’s vocal acrobatics is a treat, but interior minimalism piled on  top of grim lyrics makes for a bit much of a muchness, and sometimes the bleaker extremes of Bonar’s early stuff drag her voice from prettily sorrowful into dour and self-indulgent.

Simply put, Last War is Bonar’s scuzziest record. In the pros column, the greater dose of reverb and percussion here rescues the album from any danger of turning weepy. In fact, she sounds sadder than she does pissed off, especially on early single “No Sensitive Man.” For them that would complain that her most acoustic stuff gets boring, Last War offers a more twisted take on Bonar’s alt-country licks and lullaby lonesomeness. On the other hand, I’m inclined to argue that shaking up the style comes at the expense of her voice, which still paints broad-brush singalong arcs and still hovers in a held note over the emotionally ripe ends of each verse, but is on this album less of a focal point. Bonar’s vocal line gets swept up along with the larger machine of grit and distortion on this album, and that really saps the liveliness that made her folk persona so remarkable in the first place.

Now, that isn’t true from cover to cover. Last week I criticized Bonar’s disparaging vocals on “No Sensitive Man” as bored-sounding: I really struggled with the way she brought lyrical themes of exasperation into her vocal lines, which ultimately weren’t any more likable than the feelings the song describes. But other tracks, like “Bad Reputation,” display a lot more complexity on both lyrical and musical fronts without letting go of Bonar’s large, flexible vocal range. “I got a bad reputation,” she sings on that track, “I probably need medication.” Baldly delivering grim sentiments in a pretty voice, Bonar finally seems to hit the right balance between showcasing her vocals and showing us her teeth.

Still, she’s ultimately a singer best appreciated under a microscope. This album represents several steps in the hookier direction for Bonar, but it’s still not a record that will necessarily grab you if you’re hearing it passively. That’s why I’m puzzled by so much of the noisier parts on this album, which aren’t as rewarding to an intimate listen as Bonar’s voice would be unadorned. She proves on this album that she can turn out a decent rocker, but with a songwriterly vision like the one she showed us on Golder in 2011, or the Sing With Me EP the year before that, why would Bonar want to? Compared to the intricacy of those albums, the reverb-y sections on Last War seem to water down the album more than they enhance it.

Last War comes out May 20th.  Preorder here via Graveface. Til then, try “Bad Reputation” on for size! You can also listen to “No Sensitive Man” and spend more time with Haley Bonar on Facebook.

TRACK REVIEW: Haley Bonar “No Sensitive Man”

Eight years ago, Alan Sparhawk of Low spotted twenty-year-old Haley Bonar performing at an open mic and invited her and her drummer on tour with his band. Since then, Bonar’s been busy: she’s put out five solo studio albums and started a punk side project called Gramma’s Boyfriend, which we hear involves performing in eighties figure skating outfits. Bringing anxious bass lines together with elegant vocal harmony, Bonar brings a songwriting style to each of her albums that’s appealing and complex, with a way of cloaking grisly lyrics in catchy hooks.

“No Sensitive Man” opens with a rousing drum line and dreamy, smeared vocals that seem draped over the music. “Shut your eyes and play me something good,” Bonar sings, sounding exasperated. “I don’t wanna talk. We can get away with anything these days.” It’s a flat, unsentimental meditation with a choppy bass line that sprawls over the track. This is Bonar at her most disaffected– “No Sensitive Man” bristles in a way that’s new for Bonar’s solo material, and though it’s exciting to see her snarl, the self-isolation of the vocals on this track ultimately sound lazy, and disengaged from the rest of the music. In the absence of the sweet, story-telling style that have made her albums so good up to this point, the flat disappointment and dismissiveness that colors this track feels kind of unengaging, especially since the instrumental lines don’t fill out to take over the spotlight from Bonar’s narrative persona. While I like the idea of Bonar taking the thematic bleakness her music has always had and drawing it into the music’s aesthetic a bit more, “No Sensitive Man” lacked focus without Bonar’s vocals front and center.

Bonar’s new album, Last War, will be in stores May 20th via Graveface. Until then, check out “No Sensitive Man” below and let us know what you think!

Gone, But Not Forever: A Jason Molina Tribute

If a voice could be like a landscape, Jason Molina’s mirrored perfectly the Ohio in which I’d grown up – fertile though a bit bleak; not so dramatic but constant and comforting, even if somewhat mournful; tired cornstalks waving beneath gentle Appalachian foothills, meeting gritty, unglamorous industry; a landscape that presents itself casually as if to say here this is, it’s pretty much nothing but you can have it.

The fact that Molina, like myself, was from Ohio made me feel an instant kinship to the music he made, whether it had the folksy qualities of his earliest releases, the gospel overtones of Didn’t It Rain or the blues-infused urgency of Magnolia Electric Co. recordings – it all felt like sides of the same coin and it gave everything a sad, romantic twinge.  I loved that he referenced things and places I knew, that we even had friends in common (though we never met).  I can’t tell you how many hours I spent alone in a car with that voice and that same landscape spooling outside my window during trips across state to visit my parents in Cleveland while I was going to school in Columbus, or how I’d mouth the words “you can’t get here fast enough” in the throes of a long-distance Kent-Columbus relationship, with “The Lioness” on repeat.

The day I found out that Jason Molina died would have been my friend Robert’s 33rd birthday.  Robert, like Molina, had succumbed to drug addiction, alone, suddenly, and far too young.  When Robert died, I turned to Molina for comfort because we had both loved those songs.  I even posted lyrics from lyrics from “Goodnight Lover” on his facebook wall after his passing: “How will I live without you / Without your customs… How selfish for time to conclude / what would be the day / for leaving to work its charm on you”.  And when I thought of Molina dying alone in a hotel room with a single number in his phone (as reported by his friend Henry Owings on Chunklet) I again combed lyrics for comfort, and finding relevant verses was pretty much the only easy thing about the whole situation.  Every other song concerns itself with death and ghosts and depression and passage from one part of life into the next.

Later that day I was discussing Molina’s death with another friend of mine who has also struggled with depression and had found particular resonance in that aspect of the music.  He had this hypothesis that Molina’s biggest fans were all depressed to some degree, and that was why we gravitated toward it so.  It feels like a thing that could be absolutely true, but it’s also a truth I didn’t want to subscribe to wholly; I’d have to lump myself into that category.  To say Molina’s work meant a lot to me is an understatement – it feels more like the fiber of my being: roots of a family tree, blood running through my veins, equal parts biography and biology.  And yes, it has supported me through some difficult times.  But in the end I always looked to his lyrics for bits of beauty and promise.  The darkness was there but there were glimmers of light – the moon, the stars, headlights on an otherwise lonesome highway.  As often as Molina sang about endings, he sang about being thrashed by hope.  It never came off as hokey because it was bathed in this harsh brand of realism, a harshness that gave every note poignancy.  It wasn’t just in the words themselves but how he sang them.  It reverberated in every strum of his guitar.

And he wasn’t as morose as all of this makes him out to be.  He was warm and funny and extremely hardworking.  Below is a recording my roommate made at a Columbus show in 2004.  He had this to say about the performance:

The set is fun, varied, relaxed, and seems to be a transitional time for Molina as he had just switched monikers from Songs: Ohia to Magnolia Electric Company. He cracks jokes, plays Ozzy riffs between songs, apologizes to Scout Niblett for forgetting to ask her on stage during “Riding with a Ghost”, and ends the set with two covers eventually flooding the stage with people for a rendition of “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”

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By all accounts, the last few years of Molina’s life were a struggle.  He didn’t stop making music as he was shuttled around from rehab to hospital and back again, but lack of insurance and the tolls of addiction finally brought that struggle to an end.  Molina was relentlessly creative and contributed more in his short life than most ever will, and we’re lucky to have the stunning body of work he left us.  I was going to end this piece with some of Molina’s own words as they really do make the most fitting epitaph, but there was really too much to choose from.  Instead, I urge those unfamiliar with his work to explore the catalogue and find meaning within the work as it applies to living the fullest life possible, whatever beauty and pain that entails.

To make a contribution in memoriam, please donate here.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]