Pony Boy, the brainchild of Marchelle Bradanini, is a self-described “junkyard country” group that sounds like a dusty old Ford rumbling down a deserted road. Having already put in time as a member of the eclectic Bedtime for Toys, Bradanini channeled her rediscovered love of classic country, blues, and Americana into her latest project. We caught up with her to chat about her poetic past, her distaste for manicured pop, and what really separates her from R. Kelly.
OS: You’ve been involved in some eclectic musical projects in the past such as Bedtime for Toys or you DJing project Pony vs. Tiger. What got you interested in the aesthetic of your current band?
MB: I started out just as a girl with a guitar influenced by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Then, I ended up starting a band with some friends and that was about playing music that a group of people came up with collectively at a different point in my life. When that band broke up, I was trying to figure out what I was doing next. Oftentimes you get asked to DJ after playing a show, and I had a pretty decent vinyl collection. While I was working out exactly what the solo project would be, I started getting asked to DJ all over the place. The nice thing was that those gigs were for people who wanted rock ‘n’ roll or classic country, and it was a great opportunity to go back and rediscover all of these old, great artists that I love: John Prine, The Allman Brothers, and even Ram Jam [laughs]. There’s the electronic DJ scene, but then there are also people who want to hear actual songs that were initially released on vinyl. Getting into that scene was really great because I got to work on playlists all day. (more…)
SLG: It just comes naturally, really. Johnny and I love all kinds of music and we always put them all into the show. Johnny loves to rock but we also love to tip our hat to history. That is so important. But really, we just love experimenting and finding new voices. That is what [our career together] has uncovered. We really have a good time doing that and can’t wait to create more. It is very exciting for us.
OS: A lot of second- or third-generation artists talk a lot about the fans that come to their shows. Some find it frustrating that the fans are there more to embrace the past than to listen to the newer music. You’ve never really voiced displeasure about any of that.
SLG: I have to say that for the most part, actually the whole part, the fan interactions I’ve had have been very positive. They always talk about how much Woody’s music meant to them growing up and how much Arlo’s songs have changed their lives. There are moments where it worries me and I wonder what they expect of me. But they’ve been very positive and very gracious. It’s really been a great thing to have fans embrace the legacy.
Now more than ever, the field of rock & roll literature is a crowded one. With each new tome that tumbles into the world, there’s an ever-increasing sense that you’re being told a story you’ve heard before about the music you love. But amid this densely-occupied literary landscape of tropes and truisms, David Klein has defied the odds and come up with a fresh perspective from which to write about pop music. For the New York-bred, North Carolina-based writer, music is a numbers game”at least, numbers provide the unifying principle for the dizzyingly eclectic array of songs, styles and artists he covers in If 6 Was 9 and Other Assorted Number Songs.
“The impetus was a conversation that occurred over a beer,” says Klein of his new book, describing what’s been the genesis of countless author’s most intriguing works over the years. “When we were singing the praises of [avant-pop singer/songwriter] Anna Domino‘s ’88,’ and I made the possibly rash statement that it had to be the greatest 88 song of all time. Of course I wasn’t considering [Jackie Brenston‘s ’50s rock & roll classic] ‘Rocket 88,’ or [The Nails‘ New Wave hit] ’88 Lines About 44 Women,’ which got me thinking, ‘What would be the ultimate 33 song? What would be the ultimate 12 song?’ We started making a list, and pretty soon the thing just sprouted legs¦and that was 5 years ago. I started posting on a blog and it evolved over a couple of years.”
Klein’s book is anything but a dry list of song titles, though; for this initial volume”two more are in the offing”there are essays for the numbers 1 through 33, each one digging into not only into the details of the relevant songs, but the history of the artists, and most fascinating of all, the crazy connections that can be made between them, all with a minimum of academicism and a maximum of humor and pure, unadulterated music-geek passion. “Part of what excited me about it was finding new connections in this subject, pop music, that has been so studied,” says Klein. “It was like finding a little buried treasure, to find an avenue to look at these things that possessed these wild collisions, these strange juxtapositions. Like, Beyoncé and [’80s punk-jazz band] Tupelo Chain Sex both have records called 4, I found that kind of funny. [John Lennon‘s] ‘# 9 Dream’ leads to John Lennon’s ‘lost weekend,’ leads to [Lennon drinking buddy] Harry Nilsson, leads to Harry Nilsson’s firstborn son, whose middle name was Nine. That was the last thing before I closed the book.”
Of course, finding the proper way to make all these disparate elements flow together between the covers of a book is no simple task. “It’s like climbing Everest,” says Klein. “The numbers we can count on our hands are the most essential, you find hundreds of 7 songs and 3 songs. They don’t have as many inherent associations the higher you go. Once you get into even the mid 30s or the mid 40s, what does 46 mean to most people? You’ve got to search a lot harder.” But one of Klein’s most daunting tasks ended up being what to leave out. “The more songs I turned up, the more the pieces were in danger of being lists,” he recalls, “and I had to kill a lot of my darlings…just for the sake of concision. I didn’t want songs that were so obscure that only six people would hear them. You’ve gotta deal with the elephants in the room”you can’t write about 45 without writing about ‘Stars on 45.’ I love ‘Seven Seas’ by Echo & The Bunnymen, and then I just thought ‘It’s gotta be Love‘s 7 & 7 Is’”there’s just so many.”
According to Klein, things will get even more interesting in Volume Two. “38 and 45 and 40 all have the distinction of being nouns,” he explains. “You can drink a 40 and shoot a .45, so there’s a whole subgenre. 44 is really the big gun one, it goes all the way back to ‘Stagger Lee.’ You can connect the dots between Woody Guthrie‘s sheriff chasing him with a .44 [in “Billy the Kid”], and The Stones‘ ‘Heartbreaker’ with your .44. These connections exist and haven’t been uncovered.” So, does thinking this way about music ever seem strange to Klein? “It’s sort of like insanity,” he assesses. “An insane person never thinks they’re insane, and a geek never thinks he’s a geek, he thinks he’s writing about something really important and pretty freaking cool. I’ll wear it proudly,” he says of the geek mantle.
Naturally, this is the kind of compendium that seems to beg for Monday morning quarterbacking from opinionated readers, but in fact, that’s exactly what Klein is counting on. “I’m hoping that enough people see it that I can get all kinds of flak for things I’ve forgotten,” he confesses, “that’s my ideal. I’m starting the conversation. There’s been a million list books, but nobody’s ever written this book before, nobody’s ever looked at it this way before. This is my take, and these are the ones that are important to me. I really think there could be a book like this written just for the blues, or just for hip hop. This was my very Catholic collection of observances on the subject.” In fact, some musicians have already begun to pick up on If 6 Was 9 and make their own opinions clear to Klein. “[Americana songsmith] James Jackson Toth, who goes by Wooden Wand, wrote me a really nice letter of feedback,” Klein reveals, “and said, ‘Sorry man, “23 Minutes in Brussels” [by Luna] beats Shuggie Otis‘s “Strawberry Letter #23,” it’s the perfect song.’ That’s the fun of it, it’s subjective. I come right out and say, ‘Obviously The House of Love couldn’t hold a candle to Robert Johnson, but I’m gonna pick them for my 32 song anyway.’
So what is it about numbers that fascinates us, especially in the context of as ostensibly non-linear a subject as pop music? “They are more definitive than words,” reckons Klein, “and they are locked into an order. What they define is only one thing. There’s something iconic about them. I’m not a math guy, so it’s funny that I should end up pursuing this. They have a legitimacy, they’re like the beginning of the phone book before the letters start. I feel like I’ve found the rock phone book, and the first section’s all blank, so I’m filling it in. As Robert Pollard said [in Guided By Voices‘ “Motor Away,”] ‘The time will come when you add up the numbers.’ And I feel like that time has arrived.”
It’s not insignificant that Burlap to Cashmere‘s second album is self-titled. It’s usually a band’s debut album that bears this distinction, but in many ways, this seems like the maiden voyage of a new band. For one thing, thirteen years separate this release from Burlap to Cashmere’s debut album, Anybody Out There, and while three key members”singer/songwriter Steven Delopoulos, guitarist John Philippidis and drummer Theodore Pagano”are back on board, it’s still a new lineup, employing its own singular sonic methods.
Delopoulos started the band in the mid ˜90s as a school project for his theater program at New York City’s Marymount College, with his cousin Philippidis. By the time they graduated to the New York club scene they were a full-fledged band, eventually incorporating five other players, including Pagano. On their 1998 A&M debut, Burlap to Cashmere blended acoustic-oriented folk-rock, international influences and lyrics that endeared them to the Christian rock community, ultimately earning a Dove Award (the CCM world’s GRAMMY equivalent). According to Delopolous, though, his influences were strictly secular, centered on folk music from Woody Guthrie all the way to Ani DiFranco. Explaining BTC’s mix of singer/songwriter sounds and intense Mediterranean rhythms, he recalls, My cousin Johnny and I come from a Greek household. That’s all we were taught to listen to, those rhythms were all we knew¦once I heard American folk-pop music, like Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, for example, I unconsciously felt free to explore.
But even though Burlap to Cashmere worked up a mighty head of steam in their initial incarnation, a combination of factors Delopolous describes as fatigue and youth brought an end to the band. Delopolous released a solo album, Philippidis played with a number of other artists and BTC receded into the drifts of history.
Cut to the present day ”a reconstituted Burlap to Cashmere hunkers down to craft a batch of new tracks with hotshot producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos) for Sony subsidiary Jive Records, scaling down their size, their sound, and the spiritual fervor of their lyrics. Everything is different now, reckons Delopoulos. Then we were a seven-piece band, now we are a five-piece. It was a circus back then, but a good one. We were like kids playing fast and loud. Hyper, emotional¦just pure, fantastic chaos. Now we are less, and the music is softer. On the lack of a specific agenda in his songwriting, Delopoulos says, Growing up listening to Dylan, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens¦I never got the feeling that they were trying to change anyone. I feel the same way¦I believe Oscar Wilde said, ˜All art is quite useless.’ That said, true spirituality has nothing to do with guitars and lyrics, true art is a personal transcendence.
In the quest for that transcendence, the smaller, softer Burlap to Cashmere has created an album full of subtle, harmonically sophisticated songs that mostly bear a contemplative, low-key feel, reminiscent of Paul Simon’s pre-global period. I just get turned off when noise overrules content, comments Delopoulos. Nevertheless, the guys still know how to pull a churning, infectious rocker out of their collective back pocket when they want to. Just try getting the insistent Build a Wall out of your head after even a single hearing.
There are number of factors that brought about this unexpected second wind for the band. The most dramatic was a horrible 2005 incident where Philippides was almost killed in a road-rage conflict. That brought us closer together as family, says Delopoulos. Another [factor] is, plain and simple, we are not good at having other trades for an income. We’re just not good at anything else. Another big factor was our drummer, Theodore Pagano reentering the picture. Delopoulos also gives a lot of credit for helping to keep the band’s flame burning to the band’s manager, Tom Lewis. Without him, I’m not really sure what would become of us, he remarks.
But don’t let the more pragmatic side of Delopoulos’s reasons for the reunion fool you. After all, there are temp services and convenience-store counters from San Diego to Staten Island staffed by musicians with no other skills. Burlap to Cashmere aren’t merely a bunch of careerists desperate to milk their cash cow anew (Anybody Out There did, after all, sell nearly half a million copies). They’re plainly driven by deeper motivations, and their work is powered by a combination of passion and craft that can’t be simulated or manufactured. In other words, they’re the real thing.
Music has been a powerful form of expression during political and social change for centuries”we’re talking about you, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Woody Guthrie. We like that. Everyone has an opinion and what better way to voice it than our common language? That’s where Jef Stott comes into play. This San Francisco producer wants to “humanize” the changes in the Middle East through music. He is planning an open-genre compilation album featuring artists from Egypt, Tunisia and other Middle Eastern countries. The album will be released alongside a series of short documentaries about the artists, their creative process and their different points of view.
Music is contagious, but sometimes a little cash infusion doesn’t hurt to get it to the public’s ear. A large chunk of the money raised will be for Stott’s costs with traveling, recording and mixing, with some spent on up-front payments to the artists. He plans on doing most of the recording in the streets and homes of Cairo, Egypt and then mixing them back in San Francisco. The best part: all profits will be shared evenly with the artists involved. But enough about the details, just watch the video:
Jef Stott is an easy guy to get behind and support. Besides having a degree in cultural anthropology and some serious connections in the industry, he’s also an accomplished Middle Eastern musician himself. As he aptly put: “It seems extremely timely and important that the artistic expression of post revolution Arabic culture is documented at this time.” We couldn’t agree more.
Roots music isn’t synonymous with the stripped down sounds of Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie though those two are widely credited as the fathers of American roots music. In fact, the genre’s massive legacy includes bluegrass, jazz, gospel, country, even vaudeville. Hailing from Nashville, Buffalo Clover takes this wide-angle view of roots, fearlessly stitching together blues, rock, country, folk and gypsy music into an eclectic, theatrical tapestry.
Midnight Circus, inspired by a historical band of circus thieves from the Dustbowl era, is a vaudevillian romp that takes off at a mad gallop of drums and bass, spurred on by surging horns and a wheezing accordion. Singer Margo Price plays the ringleader, summoning her audience with Another night, another show, another penny for the gambler. 15 Reasons shows Price can be a comely country singer, too. Aided by a steel guitar, her voice has the right amount of smoke and lilt to effectively deliver lines like, I know you’ll be coming back to me when you get tired of being gone. And in 20 Tons of Blues, a stomping beat, keening guitar and tremulous organ make for a tightly-wound blues rocker with a killer sing-a-long chorus.
Ladies and gentleman, if you’re looking for a new spin on old time music, step right up and enjoy the show.