Thanks, Dog: A Strangely Fitting Kinship

It was only recently that I began to finally fathom, after four years or so, the narrow yet oddly pervasive influence of Dr. Dog in the consciousness of New Orleans. I’ve always felt their presence here; it’s inescapable when you live in the town that boarded the dudes who started a label specifically to put out records for this group of outsider Northeasterners. When Park the Van Records became a concrete entity in 2005, it marked one of the only times up to that point in which the Big Easy had earned itself any sort of braggable rock n’ roll cred since the Warehouse hosted the blazing Hades of embarrassment that was Jim Morrison’s final live performance. Since that night in December of 1970, our local collective ken has been hip enough to hang its hat on legendary prurience like Soilent Green, Acid Bath and Pantera’s Phil Anselmo – artists whose well-established creative profferings to the American musical landscape have been perpetually stilted by the apathy of a Louisiana mainstream more interested in hearing the new Neville offspring with an axe to grind or finding the successor to Louis Armstrong’s platonic ideal of a brassman – while we place what remaining rock n’ roll faith we have in the hardworking, ceaseless touring ethic of creatively impotent alternative rock acts like Cowboy Mouth and Better than Ezra.

But all of the sudden one day, in the primordial months preceding Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans found itself with a fragile, though strangely appropriate, link to the outside world of then-burgeoning “indie rock”: a band of Philadelphia psyche rockers with a bunch of weird nicknames, a penchant for the lo-fi stylings of Guided by Voices and a musical talent the likes of which NOLA’s metal, punk and ska scenes (the only real bastions of DIY or underground music that truly existed at the time) had never seen. With a string of low-key performances in front of college kids schooled in Tulane liberalism or Loyola music careerism, the odd Park The Van/Dr. Dog paradigm presented an unobtrusive new concept for New Orleans’ confidently home-grown artistic traditions: a scene self-curated, the indie imported.

If you’re the type who perpetually thinks about music in terms of “the zeitgeist”, then there is a good chance you’ve never closely listened to Dr. Dog, or that you’ve simply disregarded them. I know that’s been my case for nearly five years, and it’s more than fair: I doubt Dr. Dog has ever given much thought to their place in such a zeitgeist, and in that capacity this group of Philadelphia outsiders probably aren’t making music for us wannabe patricianists. À la The Band circa Cahoots, existing both within and decidedly outside of the artiste-driven national musical climate surrounding them, Dr. Dog placidly gained national traction with Easy Beat, and they were more than happy to snooze the indie intelligentsia with a similar sounding follow-up in We All Belong, as well as with each ever-so-joyously-repressed recording since.

But for those musicians and listeners whose tastes are fervently tethered to and filtered through the culture of New Orleans, an aestheticism built on endless hours spent living as opposed to making, and playing as opposed to posing, the idea that this city could act as Dr. Dog’s unofficial second home, a de facto pied-à-terre, was one of the most revelatory events in their lives: here is a band of classic oddballs, schooled in all the perceivable ways that the NOLA greats of all genres had been (loose perfection of a confined craft, collaboration, irreverence and the courage to do it all in the most passé fashion possible), playing on someone else’s turf yet curiously running talent-circles around not just the rockers but the funkers, jazzers, punks, hip hoppers and zydecos. And then the band would disappear, without a trace of fanfare, back up to cold, metropolitan Philadelphia, leaving us down here reeling for more and waiting patiently for the next time this revenant spirit of dead rock n’ roll would emphatically thunder into town again.

That feeling and experience, of which I never had the blessing of being a part, must have been profound in that it left a lasting impression so far in the fronts of local artists’ minds that New Orleans’ massive flood was a mere speed bump on the road of what was to come. It must have been only days after being allowed back in the city to assess all the damage that a string of bands began popping up around town with a sound decidedly new to the local consciousness but vaguely familiar to anyone with a taste for jangly indie rock or pensive chamber pop. Untrained, I took it as another of the strange, faddish yet outmoded shifts that local underground music here has an inclination toward. Just as the punk kids started playing ska in the mid-90s at its national peak and those ska kids turned to emo as it became a phenomenon, this indie thing was the next permutation of a rock scene that – aside from a deep history of sludge metal and grindcore – has glaringly never had a personality of its own.

And maybe that’s still true about our scene, but I’d be a fool to continue to argue it after realizing not just what influenced the current slew of local indie rock bands but how it influenced them. Sure, local ska had its MU330 and Mustard Plug – under the radar out-of-town bands that had a heavy influence on the style of ska we saw – and early Dashboard Confessional provided the simplest and quickest way to emulate late 90s emo (there was scant impact to be found from the rip-roaring chaos of acts like Cap’n Jazz and Braid because, with the exception of Community, no one in this city was talented enough to replicate that stuff); but whereas those acts appeared to lead the charge in their respective genres, Dr. Dog, has from day one, actively bucked the bellwethers of indie rock and its continually fluctuating trendiness. And their music couldn’t simply be emulated, it had to be assimilated. If you wanted to do what these guys were doing, you couldn’t just ape an upstroke and find a horn guy, or learn to tune in Open C, you had to perfect an entire fucking craft: You had to start thrifting for an old Rhodes, listen up on your lo-fi and fuse together a wealth of psychedelic effects pedals; You had to find a drummer that could play rock and dance and syncopate with ease and you had to master baroque vocals.

The simplest analogy available is that Dr. Dog was the mother sauce of New Orleans indie rock, a bechamel from which the Silent Cinemas, Generationals, Empress Hotels, Giant Clouds, Vox & the Hounds and Native Americas of the city could arguably find their spiritual lineage. For instance, calling the Generationals a “dancier Dr. Dog” (as I have routinely heard) may sound like a write-off that does creative injustice to that duo, but the comparison is unavoidable and, more importantly, a revelation: in a flash the band’s lineage – from the defunct Eames Era to the Generationals to the offshoot Au Ras Au Ras – goes from run-of-the-mill to positively rich and resonant when one accounts for Dr. Dog’s floodgate significance.

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Live Picks: 12.15.2011 – 12.21.2011

12.15: False + Heartless + Full of Hell + Thou + Solid Giant – Mudlark Theater

12.16: Vapo-Rats + The Lollies + The Riffs + Big Fat & Delicious – Banks Street Bar

12.17: Giant Cloud + Empress Hotel + The Hawks (of Holy Rosary) – One Eyed Jacks

When Giant Cloud disbanded early this summer, a fitting end to the mystic narrative of the rise and fall of one of the last decade’s most enjoyable bands could have involved the Rustin, Louisiana natives vanishing into the ether just as suddenly as they appeared in late 2008 to take the New Orleans independent music scene by storm. With the release of their debut Old Books EP and the numerous live gigs that followed, the humble quintet engulfed listeners with a rare breed of ethereal space-pop, a relentless onslaught of baroque musical suites that bounded freely between dark spots and bright patches with untamed ease.  The modest catalog they leave behind – buoyed by last month’s digital release of their full-length debut/final album Bloom and Decay – is so singularly unique, so beautifully devoid of distracting geographic or chronological underpinnings, a wholesale disappearing act would not have seemed too far-fetched for this gang of preternaturally talented and compatible musicians.

But Giant Cloud’s lineup has done nothing of the sort, instead pressing on in the face of one of the most disappointing announcements local music fans have been forced to oblige this year.  Lead singers and songwriters Julie Odell and Ben Jones have popped up dozens of times since, each penning a string of exquisite solo compositions and performing them to the delight of intimate crowds all over the city with Jones also lending his chops to Nashville by way of Brooklyn by way of Chicago by way of Grand Rapids rocker David Vandervelde‘s touring band.  Similarly, guitarist Preston Wittenburg now hits the road with the Generationals, manhandling a bass in the same intricate fashion he finger-picked a six-string with Giant Cloud.  Their continued ubiquitousness somehow both fills the void left by Giant Cloud’s absence and serves as a constant reminder of how magical a combination the group truly was, a dichotomy that will be momentarily subdued as they reunite for the 6th Annual Park The Van Holiday Soiree, giving all comers a chance to see one of the most dependably awesome local bands perform for maybe the last time.

Winners of the “First Local Band To Cover Steely Dan” derby Empress Hotel and San Antonio punk rockers Hawks (of Holy Rosary) round out the lineup.

MP3: Giant Cloud: “Animal Inside”

12.18: 2nd Annual Fess Fest featuring The Tipitina’s All-Star Band – Tipitina’s

12.20: Ramming Speed + Classhole – The Mushroom

Check out our New Orleans Music Calendar for a full slate of constantly updated live picks

Brass Bed: 11.11.2011

You’d think that with their admirable success over the past three years, Brass Bed would be just a little complacent with themselves. However, even after having had the pleasure of sharing the stage with the likes of indie big wigs The Walkmen and releasing last year’s shimmering chamber pop epic, Melt White, the on-stage demeanor of this notoriously restless and hard-working Lafayette-based indie pop band beams with such a transience that it’s almost impossible to anticipate just how phonically brilliant Brass Bed will be on any given night.

Admittedly, nothing about Melt White suggests that Brass Bed aren’t exactly where they currently need to be. Formerly signed to Philadelphia/New Orleans-based label Park the Van, which sported an extensive roster of similarly twee artists, they seem to comfortably embody the three R’s of indie rock: Revivalism, Reverence and Restraint. If Melt White was nothing else, it was a great indie record; but it was also decidedly indie – though that designation does the band little justice after last Friday night. Because while it may seem easy to define this apparently dreamy chamber pop band as the sum of their recorded parts, I can assure you that you have not heard Brass Bed until you have heard them follow a gear-trashing set by New Orleans experimental noise duo High In One Eye.

At the palindromically scheduled release party for the inaugural Chinquapin Records Compilation on November 11, the invitation to perform on a bill between the aforementioned math rockers and heatseeking Sun Hotel side project Native America no doubt brought with it a lofty assignment – though one that the members of Brass Bed seemed more than up to the task of fulfilling with a calculous, yet raucous, live prowess. While the dingy, decaying confines of Saturn Bar all but require a musician to step out of his comfort zone and deliver a set as oracular as it is becoming of the scene Saturn represents, drummer Peter DeHart deftly balanced a penchant for understated rhythmic tenderness with the necessity of creating a gritty backbone to Andrew Toups’ bouncy, effect-laden keys. The result was an ambiance of dark, sweaty psychedelia that allowed the front duo of Johnny Campos and lead vocalist Christiaan Mader to fully realize their subtle XTC and Television influences as if the muscular bass work of Spoon’s Rob Pope was bracing the scratchy guitar picking of A Ghost Is Born-era Jeff Tweedy.

With a technical perfection matched only by a fluid, unassumingly titanic stage energy that had otherwise mild-mannered audience members raving for days after, this humble four-piece gracefully proved both that their success up to now has been no accident and that on this night Brass Bed could have easily been one of the best rock n’ roll bands in the entire country.

Giant Cloud: Bloom And Decay

Park The Van, 2011

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about Bloom And Decay, New Orleans stewards of shimmering astro-pop Giant Cloud’s semi-posthumous final album, is how instantly comfortable it feels even upon first listen.  With only 2010’s delightful – but tiny – Old Books EP available for public consumption as the band relentlessly toured until their mid-2011 breakup, the songs that make up Giant Cloud’s first (and last) full-length album have been integral parts of the band’s live set for over a year.

But even after sitting on the shelf for almost six months, the tunes on Bloom And Decay are far from dusty. Principal singers/songwriters Ben Jones and Julie Odell’s preternatural ability to write some of the most disarmingly infectious space-pop has indefinitely extended the shelf-life of these beautifully well-worn songs; as does the fact they were masterfully recorded in former labelmates Dr. Dog‘s technological funhouse of a Philadelphia studio under the tutelage of Rick Flom of fellow psychedelic-leaning Park The Van outfit National Eye.

The flawless and lush production has managed to capture each composition at the ideal point in its evolution. The opening “Bright Lights” is as weightless as ever, and “Every Window Holds The Truth” sounds as if it was frozen in time at the apex of it’s swirling ascent, with Odell’s driving electric piano and Trey Steven’s thumping bass laying the sturdy foundation for skyscrapers of vocal harmonies.

But the real stand-out on Bloom And Decay is the Preston Wittenburg-penned “Animal Inside”, a consuming musical suite that clocks in at over seven dizzying, heart-wrenching minutes and is a masterclass in the wide-ranging appeal of Giant Cloud’s remarkably nimble and diverse bag of tricks.  A delicate and cryptic opening seamlessly gives way to a raucous chorus of soft-loud-soft push and pull before retreating back, only to blast off once again, with each distinct passage melting into one another with a charm and bluster that makes the mystically understated lyrics even more enchanting.

Truly, Bloom And Decay’s only glaring flaw is that it may be the last we hear from one of the most talented local bands in recent memory. But the air of regret that sometimes complicates the listening experience is tempered by the incomparable promise these musicians flash even in their final act together.  If this album only acts as an epitaph for Giant Cloud, it will make for a magnificent one; but it’s easy to recognize that for the individual musicians involved this may just be one of many prologues.

Bloom And Decay at Amazon

Giant Cloud Releasing Final Album, Playing Reunion Show

From the end of 2008 until just a few months ago, many arguments about the best band in New Orleans’ burgeoning indie rock movement came to one surprisingly consistent conclusion, surprising only given how nebulous and pedantic any such discussion tends to be.  With their baroque space rock – equal parts majestic instrumentation, soaring vocal harmonies, and nimble tempo shifts – Giant Cloud was the most dependably impressive group of musicians the city had to offer.  But just as they were primed to release the highly-anticipated Bloom & Decay, their full-length follow up to 2010’s Old Books EP, Giant Cloud broke up.  Their gig this past June, opening for Park The Van labelmates Generationals, was to be their last and an album full of the delicate and shifty compositions they had dynamically and relentlessly toured against for over a year was indefinitely shelved.

It was an abrupt conclusion to one of the most exciting and promising storylines the New Orleans alternative music scene had to offer, but now the Giant Cloud will get their proper final chapter: Park The Van will formally release Bloom & Decay digitally on November 8, and the band will reunite on December 17 for a special evening at Chickie Wah Wah with Empress Hotel and San Antonio-based punk rockers The Hawks (of Holy Rosary).  It probably won’t ease the still-lingering pain of the breakup, but at least it will give us a little more to remember them by.

MP3: Giant Cloud: “Windy Road”

Park The Van Records

Live Picks: 06.23.2011 – 06.29.2011

06.23: Rotary Downs – Ogden Museum of Southern Art

06.24: Gravity A + Earfunk – Hookah

06.25: Generationals + Giant Cloud + Empress Hotel + Au Ras Au Ras – Tipitina’s

Even if you haven’t spent hours devouring their 2009 debut Con Law, their follow-up EP, Trust, or their latest full-length offering Actor-Castor, there is a good chance you have heard the musical stylings of Generationals Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner.  Since their time in Baton Rouge-based quintet The Eames Era, the two have been crafting the kind of breezy, retro-pop ear-worms that have not just caught the attention of fans and critics across the country, but also television show runners and the creative teams for some major advertising agencies.

But their music is more than just a good soundtrack for episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Bloomingdale’s holiday commercials.  Easy-going melodies and jangly odes to almost every noteworthy musical genre that sprouted up between 1950 and the late 1970s combine to provide a blissful backdrop for nearly any activity that comes to mind.

In a live setting, however, Widmer and Joyner are far less less quaint, beefing up their spacious studio sound with enormous drums and synth that give their already catchy songs enveloping sonic weight.  The two are also no strangers to a delay pedal, and are not afraid to launch into a fuzzed-out guitar jam if the moment is right.  This all adds up to a stage show that is at the same time as agreeable as one may expect, but also far more rollicking (as anyone who witnessed the band’s garden-dance-party inducing set at this year’s Jazz Fest will readily attest).

If that is not enough, Saturday will likely mark the final show for Giant Cloud, purveyors of some of the most delightful music ever caught on tape.  Lead vocalists Benjamin Jones and Julie Odell have probably forgotten more about bouncy, ethereal harmonies than most singers will ever know; and locals are sure to be elegiazing the shifty, dynamic space-pop Giant Cloud crafted for years to come.  Park The Van label-mates Empress Hotel and Au Ras Au Ras open.

MP3: Generationals: “You Say It Too”
MP3: Giant Cloud: “Old Books”

06.26: Andrew Duhon + Sun Hotel + Dominique LeJeune + Reid Martin + Alexis Marceaux – Breezy’s Spot

06.28: Cigarette + James Hayes + Dave Fera + Opposable Thumbs – Euclid Records

06.29: Kool Keith – Maison

Check out our New Orleans Music Calendar for a full slate of constantly updated live picks