Two correspondents debrief at the annual Sound It Out retreat in Mendocino, California.
LN: As I live and breathe: Funky Donny Fred!
FDF: Hey man! Bring it in! [They hug.]
LN: Where you been?
FDF: Just got back from my North American fall mycology fieldtrip… shroom hunting!
LN: Oh, of course. Why doesn’t that surprise me?
FDF: Did you get the music links I sent?
LN: Yes, and I thought we could discuss your finds for a Sound It Out post.
Casper Skulls – Mercy Works
FDF: So I crossed the border at Niagara Falls, and after a rather productive hunt outside Hamilton [gently elbows LN] I spent a week in Toronto. These kids Casper Skulls were just killin’ it in the clubs. Their new record was the talk of the town.
LN: Their debut Mercy Works is a confident and well-rounded album. For sure, I hear a few varieties of early 90s alt-rock, from both sides of the Atlantic, in their music. But Casper Skulls only use those styles as a palette to color songs that ultimately succeed by capturing the awkward strut and feels of 20-somethings in the city.
FDF: When they played live, I heard amber and ochre… a little sienna…
LN: Probably best not to overstate the shoegaze or other retro psychedelic aspects of their sound, Funky Donny. Clearly, Casper Skulls have a promising path ahead of them, and it’s likely they’ll soon enough grow into their own sound. At this point, I’m reassured by the sturdy, engaging quality of their songs. Mercy Works is quite an impressive and likeable debut.
FDF: After Toronto, I made my trek west in the trusty Microbus. As you know, it’s a long slog across the Canadian midwest. Plus, the autumn weather and precipitation made for a mycological bonanza. I was working for weeks, man! It’s all a blur.
LN: No one would ever doubt your work ethic, Funky Donny Fred.
FDF: By the time I hit the forests of British Columbia, I was lookin’ to catch some tunes, and everyone was losing their shit over the reunion of Slow.
LN: No doubt! The word “insouciant” seems to have been invented for the teenage band from Vancouver, who among other things inspired the guys who started Subpop Records across the border. Slow’s snarling guitar rock should be understood in the same historical context as the first-wave grunge groups from Seattle. It’s strange that this band is largely unknown to critics and fans of the mid-80s American rock underground, whose Canadian counterpart deem Slow’s 1985 song “Have Not Been The Same” the anthem of that period.
FDF: Although it’s been thirty years since these guys played together, they’re not the oldest of farts to be reuniting the band these days. I didn’t stay long enough to catch their first shows, but I definitely made some friends in Vancouver while crankin’ Slow’s one and only album Against The Glass. If you know what I mean… [unnecessarily elbows LN]
FDF: And then I lost my passport for a couple of days in the Microbus, and by the time I found it, I needed some liquidity. So I crossed the border, hit Seattle, and sold some mushrooms to this restaurant Canlis. They liked my goods, and next thing you know, I’m grilling up my fungi to customers there.
LN: Oookay, stop right there. You served mushrooms to diners?
FDF: Yeah, man, they made me veggie cook. Alright, so I also washed a lot of dishes in the back.
LN: Your psychedelic mushrooms??
FDF: What…? No, man!! What do you think I do, man?! I’m 100 percent an epicure!
LN: Right — I mean…! Never mind, go on.
FDF: ANYHOO, the restaurant had this pianist Walt Wagner, whose thing is to do solo piano versions of cool tunes by groups you’d never expect — the Buzzcocks, Fleet Foxes, DJ Shadow, et cetera. Well, who should come into the restaurant but the mucky mucks from Subpop Records! Next thing you know, dude’s got a new album out.
LN:Reworks is a fun record. It’s not really jazz piano, in case people are thinking about how Brad Mehldau has covered Radiohead before. Wagner plays with a jauntier, classical style that gives these interpretations a little kick. I suspect this album will soon rotate heavily on a lot of dinner party playlists.
FDF: Yeah, they’re poking away on their osso bucco, then suddenly: “Is that My Bloody Valentine”?
FDF: So I made enough bread to make it down here, although not without a brief stop first in Portland to catch Witch Mountain in action.
LN: Ohh, I’m jealous! Sound It Out covered the Portland doom metal band’s last album three years ago. Since then, I understand they have a new vocalist. Their last singer, Uta Plotkin, gave off a lot of charisma and commitment, but her Sandy Denny folk-style vocals always jarred a little against the band’s raw, minimal sound. How’s new singer Kayla Dixon?
FDF: She’s a full-throttle rock’n’roller by contrast — looser, more of in the style of Ann Wilson from Heart. Dude, she was flying from the rafters when I saw them!
LN: Get out! That sounds crazy!
FDF: Yeah… I think? I don’t know, I was tripping.
LN: Say what?
FDF: Tripping balls, man! Tri-i-i-i-ppin’ balls!!
LN: [Gets up, hugs Funky Donny Fred.] You be you, FDF. You. Be. You.
A sociology professor living in upstate New York, Leonard Nevarez is patiently waiting until his kids are old enough for a family roadtrip to Maryland Deathfest. He blogs at musicalurbanism.org and is writing a book about Martha & the Muffins and the late 70s/early 80s downtown Toronto music scene.