Death Cab for Cutie – The Georgia EP
Seattle-area band Death Cab for Cutie started in 1997 as a solo project for singer/guitarist and keyboardist Ben Gibbard, but those plans were soon abandoned as Gibbard’s efforts ultimately developed into a full-blown band. With nine studio releases to their credit, they came to my attention in the early 2000s when my daughter suggested I should take a listen. Over time, I’ve acquired a number of their albums; the band achieved mainstream success when several songs from 2003’s Transatlanticism were conscripted for use in both movies and television series. The follow-up album, Plans, achieved platinum sales status, bringing the band both commercial success and critical acclaim. This new release, The Georgia EP, marks their first new music since 2018’s Thank You For Today.
Ben Gibbard and Death Cab for Cutie have always been politically active – especially with getting out the vote – and they recently have been very vocal supporters of Stacy Abrams’ Fair Fight Action organization. The organization is predominantly focused on free and fair elections in America, and guaranteeing that everyone’s right to vote is recognized and unchallenged by political parties. In light of the 2020 election results – which created two US Senate seat runoffs in the state of Georgia – Gibbard wanted to do something to help raise money for Abrams’ cause. He came up with the idea of The Georgia EP; it was very quickly recorded by the band in Gibbard’s home studio, and was released for only one day on December 4, 2020 on the Bandcamp site. The EP raised $100,000 in a single day; that helped to significantly propel Abrams’ efforts in Georgia, along with wins by the two candidates they supported. The band recently supported Fair Fight Action through their participation in the Good Music to Avert the Collapse of American Democracy compilation.
Now that we’re in January 2021, The Georgia EP has been released for streaming and download on all the major sites, and it also has been made available for preorder as a peach-colored vinyl EP. The vinyl EP will ship later this year, and preorders are currently being taken on Death Cab for Cutie’s website; the EP sells for $16, and is designed as something of a treat for everyone who helped contribute to the concept’s success back on December 4th. While only a scant 17 minutes in length, the EP consists of five cover tunes from a roster of Georgia-based artists. It features covers of songs by R.E.M. (“Fall on Me”), TLC (“Waterfalls”), Neutral Milk Hotel (“The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1”), Cat Power (“Metal Heart”), and the late Vic Chesnutt (“Flirted With You All My Life”). The band had produced a YouTube video that offered information on the project; the fundraising aspect of the project has ended, but hey – the guys in the band need to make a buck or two, and who’s not interested in obtaining a cool colored vinyl LP?
There’s nothing here that’s particularly groundbreaking, but the five covers are entertaining as hell; I mean, Death Cab for Cutie covering TLC’s “Waterfalls”? Whodathunkit! Gibbard channels a pretty great Michael Stipe vibe in the cover of R.E.M.’s “Fall On Me.” And their cover of Vic Chesnutt’s “Flirted With You All My Life” is one of the EP’s highlights; the late artist was a local Athens, Georgia fixture for years who – despite being championed by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe – never quite achieved mainstream acceptance. The band’s cover of Cat Power’s “Metal Heart” is both moving and majestic in scope, with some pretty great guitar work towards the song’s end.
The sound quality of The Georgia EP was consistently great via Qobuz’s 24/44.1 digital stream, and the album has prodigious quantities of subterranean bass that literally shook my home’s foundation. I really enjoyed this release, and it’s well worth your time to check it out! Highly recommended, and I’ve already ordered my copy of the EP.
Atlantic Records, Limited Edition vinyl EP (download/streaming from Bandcamp, Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)
Steve Earle and the Dukes – J.T.
J.T. is Steve Earle’s homage to his late son, Justin Townes Earle, who died of an accidental drug overdose last August at age 38; he ingested a mixture of cocaine that had unknowingly been laced with fentanyl – usually an exceptionally deadly combination. Steve Earle was estranged from his son for much of his life; he was constantly on the road touring and struggling through addiction issues of his own, while his young, neglected son suffered a variety of his own addictions and numerous stints in rehab. Along with long stretches of itinerancy and general juvenile delinquency; as a youth, Justin Townes Earle was once heard to say that he was “lucky to have gotten out of it alive.” When he first achieved recognition for his early work as a musician, he was once asked what it was like to be Steve Earle’s son. “I don’t even know Steve Earle!” was his response.
In an interview prior to his death, he stated, “I can’t get a job at McDonald’s because of my criminal record. So if I don’t play music, I sell dope. I’m a criminal, and if I don’t play music, I’d probably be in prison or dead.” Justin Townes and Steve Earle eventually reconciled their differences, and though it was a work in progress, seemed to be making a good faith effort to put the past behind them. They were even label mates at New West Records; it’s really a shame that the younger Earle’s life was so tragically cut short. Steve Earle’s new album, J.T., serves multiple purposes; despite being overwhelmingly upbeat in nature, it’s definitely an expression of a father’s grief for his dead son. At the same time, it celebrates the impressive level of Justin Townes’ musical accomplishments. All proceeds from the album’s sales will go into a trust for Justin Townes Earle’s young daughter.
The album’s eleven songs consist of ten Justin Townes Earle originals scattered across his body of work. Steve Earle is accompanied as always by his backing band the Dukes, and the recordings here emphasize an energy and enthusiasm that’s anything but sadness and despair. The album opens with the rowdy and unrestrained “I Don’t Care,” which is followed with equally uptempo offerings of “Maria,” “They Killed John Henry,” and “Harlem River Blues.” Rather than a somber New Orleans wake, the atmosphere is more closely akin to a hoedown. You can credit Steve Earle’s backing band with providing the propulsion he needed to complete what must surely have been a difficult project for him. All that said, J.T. is not without its more somber moments. The drone-like “Far Away in Another Town” and the remorse of “Turn Out My Lights” make abundantly clear the trouble and turmoil that Justin Townes contended with personally and professionally. I mean, at one point, Steve Earle actually kicked Justin Townes out of his band because of his rampant drug use. With the final song, “Last Words,” penned by the elder Earle as a father’s final farewell to his son, he sings, “I was there when you were born…the last words from me were ‘I love you too.’” Steve Earle goes on to plumb the roots of Justin Townes’ troubles: “I don’t know why you hurt so bad. I just know you did and I feel so sad/You made me laugh and made me cry/I loved you for all your life.”
J.T. is a fitting tribute and sad epilogue to a troubled father-son relationship, and is well worth taking the time to give it a listen. The 24/96 digital files on Qobuz sounded superb; for yet another album that was thrown together in the midst of the pandemic, it’s shockingly well done. I can’t recommend J.T. highly enough.
New West Records, CD, LP (download/streaming Bandcamp, Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Judy Stuart – The Apostolic Session EP
I regularly get releases from Jim Eigo at Jazz Promo Services , often featuring incredible offerings, outrageously good recordings by previously unknown-to-me artists that were completely off my radar. At the other end of the spectrum, some of the recordings are less than memorable. When Jim contacted me about this upcoming 10-inch vinyl EP release, my interest was definitely piqued, and never being one to turn down vinyl of any provenance, I responded in the affirmative to send it on.
Upon arrival, I was impressed with the album’s packaging, which features a really nice tip-on style jacket on heavy paperboard, with a cool, noir-ish cover design, along with a very nice printed insert (also on heavy stock) with some biographical information about Judy Stuart and the session in 1969 that produced this EP. The 45 RPM EP appears to be pressed on 180-gram vinyl of indeterminate origin, although “Made in the USA” appears on the LP and throughout the packaging. While my first impression was to head to the internet to try and get more background on Judy Stuart, that proved totally fruitless other than a link to the Jazz Promo Services website, which featured scant information about the artist. Unfazed, I pulled out the enclosed insert from the EP, and in the first few sentences of the essay about the project, they admonish you not to attempt to find any information about Ms. Stuart on the ’net – because there’s nothing there! It’s almost like she never existed.
The project was initially undertaken as sort of a showcase for the talents of Judy Stuart; apparently, Vanguard records was putting together an upcoming quadraphonic LP that featured a mix of their stable of folk and jazz artists, and it was hoped that at least one of Judy’s songs would find inclusion. It was done with the intent of exposing her to a greater audience, and especially in consideration of the relative popularity of free jazz at the time. That apparently didn’t happen, even though at the time of the recording it was hoped that a record deal would be forthcoming. The sessions were never released, and Judy Stuart virtually faded into almost complete obscurity.
She was born Judy Pizzarelli into a New Jersey family of musicians; her musical relations include both Bucky and John Pizzarelli. She and her sister Joan sang on a New York radio children’s show, and they also appeared on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour. Joan quit the biz, but Judy continued, changing her name to Judy Stuart somewhere in the sixties, and spent eight years doing club dates with both small and large bands. She performed regularly, authored a number of plays, and even auditioned for an appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. The tune she chose for her audition was “FBI: Federal Bureau of Insanity,” which the show’s producers watched with apparent horror. Needless to say, she didn’t get the gig. After almost 50 years, the tapes were rediscovered, and the project finally moved forward for the current EP; unfortunately, Judy Stuart died before the EP could be released.
My initial listening didn’t take long – the 45 RPM EP only consists of two songs, one per side, and clocks in at about 12 minutes in total length. My first written note that characterized Judy Stuart’s voice was “Lene Lovich meets Yoko Ono.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not quite as out there as most of Yoko’s fingernails-on-chalkboard output, but this is definitely free jazz fusion meets Woodstock-era rock, to say the least. The recording is surprisingly great, and displays a really wide and deep soundstage; the very first thing that grabbed me on side one was drummer Shelly Rusten’s propulsive downbeat. His rock solid drumming drives both of these tunes to greater heights. The drum kit occupies a very large portion of the soundstage, but when the guitars and keyboards start chiming in – think in terms of more out-there Miles Davis of the same vintage, like Bitches Brew – well, you get the picture! This was obviously a very happening session, and with the large mix of acoustic and electric instrumentation, well – there’s a lot going on here! Judy Stuart’s over-the-top vocals are definitely that; but seem a tad flat in comparison to the otherwise outstanding mix of instrumentation.
The EP was flawless in every way; it was perfectly flat, and had no scratches or surface noise of any kind. On the accompanying media leaflet that arrived with the EP, there’s mention of digital files being eventually made available on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and YouTube, so maybe there’s hope that a wider audience can sample this most outrageous music making digitally and soon. Online purchase of the vinyl EP is available here. For the more adventurous among you, this EP is highly recommended.
Inky Dot Media, 45RPM Vinyl EP (no digital streaming or download currently available)