ALBUM REVIEW: Common Holly “Playing House”

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photo by Sean Mundy

Playing house is one of the earliest and most innate forms of childhood emulation. It is how we pantomime maturity, and begin to learn self-preservation, domestic upkeep, and the treatment of others. From pretending to prepare a meal, to sweeping the tree house, this form of child’s play is our first expression of wanting to “grow up.” For Canadian artist Common Holly, Playing House is an expression of consciously entering adulthood. It is also the name of her debut record.

Helmed by songwriter Brigitte Naggar, Common Holly greets us with a tender and sophisticated meditation on the end of a formative relationship, and the importance of purposeful decision-making. Of Playing House, Naggar said in a press release that the record “is my first real effort to create something that is entirely deliberate—the beginning of my journey of thoughtful action, and of daring to express myself outside of my bedroom.”

“Deliberate” is the perfect word for Playing House – its stunning arrangements and artful production reflect intent and restraint. Opening track “If After All” is expertly composed, commencing with a font of liquid before breaking down into a multifaceted pop gem, somehow incorporating finger-plucked guitar, swelling strings, and minimalist drums without sounding overwrought. Naggar’s girlish voice carries the same melody throughout the song, but the instrumentation blooms from indie folk to sweeping ballad before culminating in hard rock distortion and busy electric guitar. “If After All” is such a strong composition, I almost wish it was buried deeper in the record, as it’s a tough act to follow.

Though less musically intricate, “Nothing” speaks to Naggar’s ability to contrast form with concept. The dulcet vocals and bedroom rock delivery of “Nothing” portray innocence, while Naggar’s lyrics are anything but. Naggar sings of a crumbling, codependent relationship in which every attempt to problem-solve results in suffocation: “If I got you in a room/ if I got you to hold still/it would probably too soon/to hold you there against your will.”

This level of self-awareness is palpable throughout Playing House. Naggar deconstructs a banal yet dysfunctional relationship throughout the album, holding herself accountable as much as possible. Discussing this theme in a press release, she said, “Especially at the end of a relationship, there comes a time when the best thing you can do for someone is to leave them alone even though it might feel like you’re abandoning them. Sometimes trying to resolve things and being over-present is an act influenced more by guilt than by empathy.”

“In My Heart” is yet another manifestation of that concept. A quietly complex country number, it employs pedal steel and neatly placed piano. The song’s softness negates its harsh message of letting someone go: “Don’t try/In my mind, in my mind I can’t help it/With my heart, with my heart I can’t help you.”

Resting midway through the record is the gorgeous “Lullaby” featuring Montreal pianist Jean-Michel Blais. “Lullaby” depicts Naggar at her thematic pinnacle – the anatomy of the song is true to lullabies, indeed, while Blais’ creeping keys suggest the twinkling of a nursery mobile rotating above a crib. Naggar’s lyrics, however, are biting and brutal despite this naïve melody. “If you’re busy undermining all the things I had to say,” she sings, “I know it would have been wrong for me to try to stay.” The track’s closing coda plays on a familiar children’s game, but turns that on its head for a darker finish: “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Naggar intones, before promising: “I will keep away.”

The weighty blues of “The Rose” finds Naggar nodding at The Black Keys. The song is soft to start, but builds up and breaks down into Auerbach-worthy guitar, eventually spinning out with grunge distortion. In keeping with this dark turn, “The Desert” is a painterly narrative with sparse string arrangements evoking The Dirty Three. Hand drums and piano crawl behind scant guitar and Naggar’s reverb-heavy croons, weaving a soundscape strong enough to close the record. Though it seems that Naggar didn’t want to end things on such a heavy note. Playing House’s final cuts resort to sweet and weightless melodies instead.

The title track exudes a singsong, sonic innocence. Its melody is full of childlike “doo doo doos” and lyrics that are one word away from being playful: “I’ll play mama, you’ll play daddy and we’ll ruin us beyond repair/at the cabin, on the lakeside, if we take things too far.” It is a song you can almost skip or swing to, until it dissolves into a foreboding vibration fit for Twin Peaks.

Closing track “New Bed” is Common Holly’s most stripped-down offering on Playing House, and perhaps its most optimistic. It is the song that finalizes the breakup; the hopeful closure and calm after the storm. Naggar is vulnerable and resigned when she sings, “I feel that we will get along just fine/if everything goes the way I have in mind.” The song fades out with rain and faint sirens, but what they’re chasing, we do not know.

Playing House is out now on Solitaire Recordings. Don’t miss Common Holly on her upcoming tour.

September 28 – Nomad Folk Fest
November 2 – Brooklyn Bazaar, New York, NY w/ The Hotelier, Oso Oso & Alex Napping
November 3 – Songbyrd Music House, Washington DC, w/ The Hotelier, Oso Oso & Alex Napping
December 5 –  Communion Showcase,  Rockwood Music Hall,  New York, NY
December 8 –  Theatre Fairmount, Montreal, QC w/ Chad VanGaalen[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

NEWS ROUNDUP: Hinds, Making a Murderer, and David Bowie

davidbowiemain

With the new year we’re going to be bringing you a weekly news round up. Here are our highlights. Dig in.

  • HINDS Takes Over NYC Hinds, the Madrid-based, garage rock band, released Leave Me Alone today, and made a few noteworthy appearances in NYC to celebrate: An in-store session at Manhattan’s Other Music on Tuesday, and a wild, karaoke-style party at Bushwick’s Palisades last night. If you were lucky enough to get in, we’re jealous.

  • Making a Murderer/Making a Mixtape

    If you have a Netflix account- or a maybe nice friend’s password- chances are, you’ve spent the holidays obsessing over the true crime drama Making a Murderer, the story of crooked cops who will stop at nothing to frame a man who is innocent (or is he?!?). Dan Auerbach is right there with you, guys. He enlisted his new band The Arcs to record “Lake Superior,” a song about the story of Steven Avery. It’s a spacey, lo-fi track featuring lyrics that echo the corruption the documentary tackles: “Back on the shore where the poor get whipped/ Where the fat get fat and the rich stay rich.” All proceeds the song earn will go to the Innocent Project, Auerbach says.

  • It’s (Almost) Music Festival Season

    Tickets went on sale for two California festivals, Coachella and BottleRock. Guns N’ Roses are reuniting for Coachella, and other notable headliners include LCD Soundsystem and Sufjan Stevens. But as many sites have pointed out, there is, and always has been a serious lack of female headliners at the famous festival. There’s only ever been two instances where a woman was a headliner, but both of those were Bjork (in 2002 and 2007), so that’s really like one and a half. Also, that poster is practically impossible to read. Back on the east coast, the lineup for the 2016 Governors Ball festival in NYC was just announced as well. 

  • Upcoming Shows

    For readers in NYC who need help planning their social life for next week or so, may we suggest these shows:

    • Rubblebucket at Brooklyn Bowl: Tonight, 8:30 PM
    • NYC’s Hardest Working Bands (featuring Pill, Future Punx, Acid Dad, Gingerlys, Surf Rock is Dead,Dreamcrusher, and Vomitface) at Baby’s All Right: 1/09, 4 PM
    • A Tribute to Lou Reed (featuring Sinkane, Mirah, Invisible Familiars, Your 33 Black Angels, Pencil, Cassandra Jenkins, Jolie Holland, and Sam Owens) at Manhattan Inn: 1/10, 8:30 PM
    • Metz/Bully/Palm at Bowery Ballroom: 1/13, 8 PM
  • Happy Birthday, David Bowie and Elvis!

    “The King of Rock’n’Roll” would have been 80-years old-today. David Bowie also turned 69 today and finally released Backstar. We’re calling today David Bowie Day. Stay tuned for AudioFemme’s take on his much anticipated 26th studio album. 

ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Those Darlins

Those Darlins

“I am a woman from the South. If that’s what country is then I guess we are!” For Jessi Zazu of Nashville rock ‘n’ roll band Those Darlins, self-acceptance comes from art, be it found through her drawings or genre-defying hits created collectively with band members Nikki Kvarnes and Linwood Regensburg. Zazu speaks (and sings) with a rawness that’s honest and insightful – while maintaining a rough boldness that can catch you off guard. Prior to a show with Adia Victoria at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade Jessi took a moment to catch up with AudioFemme, and we were so impressed we decided to make her our Artist of the Month, then paired cowboy boots with Armani and shook our asses.

AF: How’s the tour going?

JZ: It’s going great. [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Adia Victoria] is a good friend of mine, and the people in her band as well, so it’s fun. I’m just a huge fan of her music, and I’ve been watching her since she did solo night at writer’s night. It’s been really cool to watch her grow and take over.

AF: How’d you guys get hooked up with her?

JZ: She was at one of our shows when we were opening for Dan Auerbach. She saw us at Bowery Ballroom I think, and she just really liked us, and a couple years later she moved down here [Nashville]. My friends have a venue and I put on a few shows to help promote it, and she came up to me and said ‘I like your dress’ or something, and I remember thinking ‘Oh gosh, I don’t know who this girl is, but I like her!’ We became friends pretty quickly.

AF: What a dream come true for her. So how do you guys travel on tour: van, bus, or fly?

JZ: We have a van, a 12-passenger van. We drive around, we crash people’s houses.

AF: Who drives?

JZ: We take turns, but I would say Linwood drives the most.

AF: Any wild stories from the most recent run?

JZ: There was this one night where this guy was being kind of a douche bag. Everyone was pretty pissed at him…and I’m pretty sure that he was about to get it.

AF: Was he a fan?

JZ: I don’t know! I don’t really get it! He stood in front of me the whole set and seemingly enjoyed it, but he kept saying really rude things, it was kind of, I don’t know… I think part of him really liked it because it was good, haha! But I think the other part of him was something that deep down inside of him couldn’t accept that there were girls on stage. It was just very strange. And he was particularly kind of like trying to provoke me and stuff. He ended up getting kicked out of there though. He was also really wasted.

AF: Does that happen often, sexism from people in the crowd or music industry?

You know, not all the time, but it happens occasionally. Most people aren’t that aggressive, subtle stuff is more common.

AF: What recommendations do you have at the moment from the Nashville music scene?

JZ: Adia [Victoria] is my favorite new artist from Nashville at the moment. It’s been interesting over the past five years, because they say there’s like 85 people a day moving to Nashville. It was kind of weird whenever people started saying ‘Oh yeah, I moved here from LA, New York, and we’re like ‘Oh wait, what?’ It used to be the opposite. People from Nashville moved to LA and New York. But there’s just been more and more bands.

AF: Is the country sound – one a lot of people associate with Nashville – one you embrace?

JZ: When we started our band the first album was country, but it wasn’t like….Nashville country. It was something totally different. I think we found pretty quickly that we didn’t really fit within that world because it’s kind of traditionalist world, and what we were doing we felt was a little bit more punk, it terms of playing country, but not being reverend to what country is supposed to be. Just doing our own thing. We eventually started moving out of that towards garage rock. But ever since then we’ve always been categorized as country. I mean, I’m from Tennessee. I’ve got a country accent, and when I sing it’s pretty obvious. So no matter what genre I’m singing I’m still going to have a country accent. So I don’t really think of us as country music, but I do think of us as a band from the South. I don’t feel like I’m one kind of artist or another; I just feel like I make music, and that music is a reflection of who I am.  I am a woman from the South. If that’s what country is then I guess we are!

AF: I’m curious about your art, will you tell me about that? I know you’ve had some art shows. 

JZ: Well both my parents are visual artists. I grew up doing visual art before I even started playing music. It’s really kind of like my foundation. Nikki’s the same way. So I’ve always done art alongside music A couple years ago when I was working on our last album Blur the Line, and in the same way that the album was much more about self examination than our first album, it was a little more personal and vulnerable. And I was doing a lot of self portraits around that time. The show was called Spit and it was mostly self portraits, but there was a few portraits of others sprinkled in there too, my friends and family. I just sort of got to this point where I was drawing myself a lot because it helped me bring up a lot of stuff about myself that I was wanting to tackle. I called them “demons” at the time. Things that I didn’t like necessarily or things that I had done. Things that had been done to me. And I just had been going through a weird time with my body, I was sick for a while and I got really skinny. I would draw ugly pictures of myself and I would draw more masculine features. Just like all these ideas I had about myself in my head to get it out there. I’m working on another show now, but it’s going to be a while before I get it done.

AF: That’s such a beautiful description of art as therapy. 

JZ: Well, I’ve always used art as therapy. Before I ever started playing music. And I always kept sketchbooks growing up. Both my parent were artists as I’ve said, but my mom was very…we’re both kind of nuts, honestly. And she’s like, ‘If you don’t do art, you’ll be crazy.’ And that’s how I am – I have all this stuff, and if I don’t get it out in some way, if I’m not constantly creating I just don’t function. I need to constantly process everything to function.

AF: How does it feel to get your emotions out through your art as opposed to your song writing? 

JZ: Art is a very singular process. I’m by myself and it’s one on one. And that [Spit] was my first show ever so that was really intense because for so long I had been doing this stuff in private and I didn’t know what it would feel like to put it out there to the world. So that was intense. For the most part it just feels like a much more private – and the thing is when you draw a drawing it’s just drawn. You just do it and it’s done. With music, in the beginning for me it is still one on one with myself writing, but then I take it to my band members and it changes, and for me I’ve got to be a little bit more open about it. It’s a collaborative experience. But I think both mediums are very scary – if you’re writing or drawing. To create pieces based on your own inner dialogue.

AF: What are you working on at the moment?

JZ: As a band we’ve been demoing new songs, and we’re kind of taking a little break from it since we’ve got these shows, which I’m feeling good about, because my brain needs a break! But yeah, we’re at the stage of: ‘Here’s a song, what do you want to do with it?’ It’s a weird phase because the songs aren’t quite there. It can be frustrating sometimes; it can be exciting sometimes. As far as art work I’ve been doing a lot of commissioned work for other people. And Adia and I just released a book, it’s like a double book where one side’s my book and one side’s her book. It’s poetry, both of our poetry, and then I illustrated. We’re going to be selling them at our shows. Her book’s called Lonely Language and my book’s called Purge.  And they’re both Volume Iwe’re going to do a second volume.

AF: So much art going on!

JZ: I try to keep myself busy all the time. No breaks! But I’ve got to slow down sometimes.

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FLASHBACK FRIDAY: “The Big Come Up”

Ending your band’s debut album with a 23-minute hidden track is a bold move, but then again, The Black Keys have always been pretty bold in their bluegrass/garage rock. Years before they were selling out tours throughout the country, Akron, Ohio natives Dan Auerbach (guitar/vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums) were jamming in their basement, penning tracks that would soon become their first DIY full-length, The Big Come Up (2002). Auerbach and Carney had sent a demo to several record companies, eventually securing the support of Alive, an indie label in California that didn’t even require the duo to perform for them.

The boys’ DIY roots extend to their sound. The songs on this album are much more raw than the polished versions of the duo’s latest albums, but that lends the early tracks something special and nostalgic. Although it consists of only a few original songs written by the bandmates (who began their friendship in middle school), those original songs exude a unique roughness that is rarely found anymore. They rock their guitars and drums, but they take their time as they make their way through each track.

However, the covers themselves shouldn’t be taken for granted, as they so perfectly convey the band’s style. Their take on The Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” turns the light, airy feel of the original and adds heavier rock, turning up the guitars and thus incorporating another layer of passion to the track. On “Leavin’ Trunk,” Auerbach and Carney flair up the blues standard with their own interpretation.

The part original composition, part cover album didn’t initially gain the pair many followers outside of Ohio, but it did manage to attract the attention of Fat Possum Records, which produced several of their subsequent albums. The garage rock band had something different to offer in the early millennium, and eventually people took notice. Their single, “I’ll Be Your Man,” one of the best from the album, later received much recognition, including use as the theme song for HBO’s “Hung.”

Throughout several albums after The Big Come Up, The Black Keys refined their style and slowly weaned themselves off of covers, to produce fresh music of their own. While they’ve released chart-topping albums since their beginning, their roots of blues rock will always be a part of their sound and image. The Big Come Up not only started it all, but also influenced it all.

Listen to “I’ll be your man”, here, via Youtube:

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