Steve Slagg has been paying his dues as a musician for a while now. I, along with many others, know him best as the keyboard player/vocalist in Chicago rock band Mooner, but he also has his own project, Youngest Son. They are wildly different as far as style and sound (though they do have one thing in common-they’re very good). I had no knowledge of Youngest Son before I got an email with their latest release, the EP All Soul’s Day attached.
There’s a lot to like in the short 25 minute collection of songs, including two covers of songs from Slagg’s full-length All Saint’s Day (“Hole In The Sky” by Allison Van Liere and “Long Year” by Lee Ketch), of which the new release is a companion piece. The compositions are all really beautifully done here, with the emphasis on piano and vocals. The masterful craftsmanship, coupled with the choice of instrumentation, brings to mind Ben Folds and Elliott Smith (though Randy Newman seems to be Steve’s preference).
The atmosphere of the record grabs you right away as “Blank Face” opens with soft and sweet piano strokes. Joined after the first verse by strings and drums, the song picks up in the middle of verse two and slows down again just as slowly providing some great dynamics that draw you in even deeper.
I think that rather than a companion piece, you could think of All Soul’s Day as a kind of sampler or mixtape. There isn’t really a narrative through it, because two of the songs are from the other record and one is an old gospel song. It doesn’t take away from the quality of work on display. In fact, I like that you get little tastes of different aspects of Youngest Son here because it makes you want to go check out the other releases.
You can stream All Soul’s Day on The Youngest Son’s website.
The breakup record is one of the most popular genres of music in the world. Whether you were lying on your bed crying into your pillow or cruising around your exes neighborhood blasting “your song,” music plays a huge part in our relationships and an even bigger part in the healing process. For those of us who are non-musicians, we can merely listen and empathize. Songwriters get to lay it all out there for us, and Briar Rabbit has done just that on his new record, From Your Bones.
It’s been about a year since we started to hear little tidbits of info about BR working on something new to follow his 2011 EP The Great Routine. In July we got to hear the first single, “So Long” and the anticipation level instantly went to DefCon 4. A month or so later he played some shows made up of mostly new material. I was lucky enough to be at Schubas the night he was in Chicago, and it sounded great. Now I’ve heard From Your Bones in its entirety, and it is even better than my high expectations had me hoping it would be.
The best song on the album, in my opinion, comes late in the running. “Bad Blood” gets my vote because it’s the best overall composition. It opens with BR on acoustic and vocals before opening up with a crashing drum and organ that floats in and out of the foreground. It features some great lines (“So when I got it stuck in my brain, that I love your forever was more than a phrase I couldn’t have been more wrong. All I got was a year and a handful of songs.”) and a Nels Cline-esque guitar solo by Jeff Parker that separates this tune from all the others on From Your Bones.
This is BR’s most collaborative record to date, and I think it’s opened up a lot of possibilities for him as a songwriter. It’s allowed him to write without worrying about how to play the songs all himself. If this had been another completely solo effort, I don’t think we would have heard “Sleepwalking,” which would have been a damn shame. It has Ben Folds Five-ish harmonies in the refrain and one of those melodies that feels familiar and brand new at the same time.
When I heard the album performed live, my favorite song was “Crooked Teeth.” I think it was more the passion and energy it was delivered with that set it apart from the others. It was one of the last songs, but BR’s voice came through powerful and confident. The song isn’t unlike something you may hear on Josh Ritter’s Hello Starling album, which is a great place to be for any singer/songwriter.
With From Your Bones Briar Rabbit announces himself as a major contender for your “Best Of What’s Next” consideration. His songwriting craft is mature far beyond his years, and his ability to deliver his words with emotional resonance is a skill most singers envy. It isn’t that From Your Bones is a great record that impresses me. It is a great record, but what I really love about it is the potential that Briar Rabbit lays out in front of us. He’s an artist that will always leave us wanting more, and he seems keen to keep delivering.
You can pre-order a copy of From Your Bones, which comes out next week, on Briar Rabbit’s website. While there you can also download “So Long” for free and check out his upcoming tour dates. He’ll be playing a release show here in Chicago on Saturday January 25th at Martyrs with Dirty Pigeons, Julia Klee, and Todd Kessler from NBC’s hit show “The Voice.”
Next Tuesday night, the 22nd of January, I’ll be hosting a live conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #FromYourBonesLive
I do my best to bring some sort of A/V quality whenever I review shows for the site. I tend to record one song per show that I go to, assuming that it’s ok with security. That means that I did NOT record anything when I saw Prince at City Winery-he is not down with people recording at his concerts. It definitely helps get the word out about local talent that people may not have heard, and for the bigger shows its just fun to let people who couldn’t make it get a glimpse of what it was like. These are my ten favorites from 2013, a mix of local and national acts. If you enjoy them, you can check out the rest of my videos on my Youtube page.
10. Briar Rabbit-Crooked Teeth at Schubas
9. Ben Folds Five-Philosophy/Do It Anyway at FirstMerit Bank Pavilion
8. Molehill-I Hope You’re Happy at Metro
7. Smith Westerns-3AM Spiritual at Schubas
6. The Oarsman-Flying Trapeze at Lincoln Hall
5. Justin Timberlake & Jay Z-Tunnel Vision/Jigga Who at Soldier Field
4. Fort Frances-Nothing Compares 2 U at Lincoln Hall
3. Bedroom Sons-My Blood, pt 3 at Empty Bottle
2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs-Runaway at Summerfest
1. Conor Oberst & The Felice Brothers-White Limo at Way Over Yonder Fest
Last night at Schubas I finally got the chance to see my friend Briar Rabbit perform live for the first time. I’m not sure how I’ve gone over a year without seeing him play, but it was well worth the wait. This show acted as the kick-off to promote the new album From Your Bones-though the record has been delayed, so this was deemed a “Single Release party.” I think he said it best when he put it this way: “What is a single release party? It’s when you planned on putting out a record but it got delayed and you’re already booked to play at Schubas.” We got to hear a bunch of new songs anyway, and even though it isn’t “officially” being released, there were copies to buy at the merch table.
Last winter I got to spend some time with Briar Rabbit at Handwritten Recording while he was doing a song for my Hasty Revelations project. It was the first time we’d met in person, and we got along like old pals. He ended up hanging around the studio for a while just talking about music and his personal philosophy on the music business. Rick and I both seemed to agree with most of his feelings, and I knew that I’d want to keep up on anything new that he might put out.
Last month saw the release of “So Long,” the first single off From Your Bones. I posted it here, but if you didn’t catch it, here’s a link. I really love the way he writes lyrics-it isn’t abstract like some writers are. When he’s singing about his heart, he lays it out plain and simple. He brings both the irreverence of Ben Folds and the emotional depth of Josh Ritter into his music.
I noticed when he was playing that everything that was going on around him seemed blocked out. There were three other guys on stage, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the man singing. He just has the kind of personality that commands attention. He held my interest all the way through. At the very end of the show he came up to perform a surprise encore that even he wasn’t prepared for. His cover of “Let’s Stay Together” wasn’t great, and relied heavily on the crowd singing with him. Somehow he managed to make that equally compelling.
My favorite song that he performed was a really old song of his called “Tread Lightly.” Maybe it’s because that one has been played the most, or the band knows it best, but it felt like every note landed perfectly. It helps that “Tread Lightly” is a really good song anyway.
Briar Rabbit spent most of August touring from one Goorin Bros. hat shop to the next, and now he’s off playing in bars and book stores and anywhere else that people appreciate good music. If you’re interested in checking him out, you can find all his upcoming tour dates here.
Company You Keep
Bothered No More
From Your Bones
*Hit Me Baby One More TIme*
Lock Up Before You Leave
Let’s Stay Together
The reunion of Ben Folds Five has been a great success so far. Last year they toured together for the first time since 2000 and put out a great new album called The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. I got to see them at Chicago Theatre last year, and they were phenomenal. The chemistry was still there and Ben seemed to enjoy playing with his band again. So, when the opportunity arose to go see them again I immediately jumped at it.
The show was part of a tour Ben Folds Five is doing with Barenaked Ladies called the Last Summer On Earth Tour (hopefully it isn’t). I had never been to FirstMerit Bank Pavilion, formerly known as Charter One Pavilion. As far as outdoor venues go, it’s pretty nice. It’s smaller than I had imagined, and the seats that are the furthest back are elevated so you can still see. The piece of land it sits on is beautiful, over on Northerly Island right on the water. The view when you exit the park is a spectacular panorama of the Chicago skyline.
Gates opened up at 6 and we got there at almost 7. Kari had to get her photo pass and I like to get to shows early anyway. The opener, Boothby Graffoe, went on at 7:30 and played a short set of about five or six songs. After the first song he was joined by Barenaked Ladies bass player Jim Creegan. The next he brought out keyboardist Kevin Hearn. For the final, and best, song of the set he also brought out Ed Robertson-so it was basically Boothby Graffoe with the Barenaked Ladies as his backing band. A pretty sweet deal for an opening artist.
I didn’t care much for his set. The songs were filled with slightly humorous lyrics and his stage presence was akin to a bad stand-up comic. He was entertaining some of the people around me, though, so I guess he knows his audience. His voice reminded me of Nick Lowe, who I also don’t care for much. Maybe it’s a British thing.
It didn’t take long for the stage to get reset for Ben Folds Five, and only a couple minutes later than the stated 7:55 start time Folds appeared from behind the huge backdrop to great applause. At this point it was now 8pm, and there were still a ton of open seats-I was one of five people in my row with 20 seats. Maybe everyone was up getting a beer, but I was a bit sad to think that everyone that bought tickets to this show were just coming to see Barenaked Ladies. Once the music started the seats began to fill up, though.
They opened with “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” off the band’s latest album. Not a surprising opener since their still touring behind the new album, but maybe not the best choice. It’s a good song, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t have that kick you need to grab an audience. The second song they played, “200 Solemn Faces And One Angry Dwarf,” would have made a better impression. That said, for the most part the crowd seemed into it from the second they walked out, so maybe they already had everyone’s attention.
I’ve always been impressed with Ben Folds’ ability at the piano. There aren’t many pop musicians who are so talented with an instrument, and he’s a real virtuoso. He’s so good in fact, that the technical prowess of his bandmates has been overlooked since the beginning. On more than one occasion during the set I found myself staring at Robert Sledge as he tore through song after song on the bass. Some of the sounds he gets to come out of that things are unreal-I mean they just don’t naturally come out of a bass like that.
The songs they chose to play ran through the entire course of their history, including a selection from Ben’s solo work, “Landed.” I always wonder if Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee feel like they’re playing a cover song when they do anything that was a Folds-only release. They seem to be ok with it, and the version of the song they do as a band is phenomenal. After “Brick,” “Landed” is probably the biggest hit Folds has had in his career, so it’s good that they can play it as Ben Folds Five and it doesn’t seem weird.
As the sky turned from day to night, and the fear of an impending rain shower passed, the band dug in deeper to their initial run of releases. The final three songs of the set were a Ben Folds Five lovers dream come true. They played a long version of “Narcolepsy” that normally might be the regular set closer and then they would come back and play an encore. Since they weren’t headlining this show, they launched straight into “Song For The Dumped” and followed that with the crowd sing-along “Army” to close.
I thought this show was amazing. My only quibble would be with the sound system. It definitely could have been much louder. I don’t know if that’s a noise issue because it’s near the museum or something, but the vocals especially were a little buried in the mix. Other than that, it was a gorgeous night to be out seeing a live show, and Ben Folds Five provided a perfect soundtrack (after that first song). Hopefully they’ll be back again soon on their own so they can play a bit longer. One hour just isn’t enough time to play all my favorites.
Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
200 Solemn Faces And One Angry Dwarf
Missing The War
Draw A Crowd
Do It Anyway
Song For The Dumped
I’m going to see Ben Folds Five tomorrow night, and I wanted to post something about his music. It seemed redundant to post about the new live album, Ben Folds Five Live, that just came out since I’ll be reviewing the actual show. I will note, however, that if you’ve never seen Folds solo or with his band, they do a good job of conveying the energy that most fans associate with the artist. This will be my sixth time seeing Folds-the second with his original band. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed with any of the shows. Folds is a genius when it comes to pop music, and he’s equally talented as a performer as he is a writer. It’s a challenge to narrow it down to ten songs since I’ve been a fan since high school, but here goes nothing. (This list will span both his solo discography, and with the band)
10. “Kate”-Ben Folds Five-Whatever & Ever Amen
9. “Still Fighting It”-Ben Folds-Rockin’ The Suburbs (crowd singing in this video sounds so good! how come I never stand next to anyone who can carry a tune?)
8. “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You”-Ben Folds-Sunny 16
7. “Army”-Ben Folds Five-The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner
6. “Landed”-Ben Folds-Songs For Silverman
5. “One Dwarf And Two Hundred Solemn Faces”-Ben Folds Five-Whatever & Ever Amen
4. “Jackson Cannery”-Ben Folds Five-Ben Folds Five
3. “Jesusland”-Ben Folds-Songs For Silverman
2. “Philosophy”-Ben Folds Five-Ben Folds Five
1. “Song For The Dumped”-Ben Folds Five-Whatever & Ever Amen
Next week Chicago’s Briar Rabbit is taking his talents out of town for a two-week tour of the midwest. He’ll be playing some old songs, as well as the new material he’s been working on for his follow-up to 2012’s The Great Routine. He’ll be hitting most of the major cities, as well as a couple less-familiar cities like Newporty, Kentucky and Clive, Iowa (where soon-to-be-forgotten superstar Carly Rae Jepsen is playing a 350-seat venue 4/4). If you live in any of the areas listed below, do go check him out. He’s a talented guy.
I got the opportunity to spend some time with him while he was recording a Hasty Revelations session for me at Handwritten Recording. Couldn’t be nicer if he tried. He’s also crazy-talented, graduated from Berklee College Of Music, and seems to be very focused on reaching the goals he’s set for himself. If you like Ben Folds, then you’ll have something in common with Briar Rabbit already. You can hear Folds’ influence all over this track from Briar Rabbit’s recent EP:
You can check out the rest of his music on Bandcamp or Spotify