Ben Lee – Quarter Century Classix (CD)

There’s something strangely comforting about ‘90s lo-fi Indie Pop stalwart Ben Lee turning to the songs of his louder contemporaries for his covers record. Though Lee is probably better known for the more accessible pop elements of that era’s alt rock music, he makes an inspired choice to take on songs by the likes of more distortion-laden bands like Sonic Youth, Fugazi and Dinosaur Jr. on Quarter Century Classix.

The result is a mixed bag. His acoustic takes on The Breeders’ “Divine Hammer” is impressive, as his original take on Dinosaur Jr.’s “Get Me.” His cover of Built To Spill’s “Car” is hauntingly sweet, but elsewhere, Fugazi’s “Blueprint” is pretty blah and Superchunk’s “My Noise” sounds a little perfunctory.

Lee brings in a slew of collaborators for this one – including Juliana Barwick, Mike Watt, that dog’s Petra Haden and Azure Ray’s Maria Taylor, among others – to help fill out the sound. Ultimately, the record is a mix of endearing classics reworked in Lee’s own style and a few filler tracks here and there.

Ben Lee – Quarter Century Classix /13 tracks/New West Records/2019 / Domain /

Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits (Vinyl)

It’s sometimes taken for granted just how brilliant a songwriter Tom Waits is. The sky is blue, water is wet, and Waits can write a truly heartbreaking song. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s been making music for more than four decades; Maybe it’s that some just can’t get past his graveled vocals, but sometime all it takes is listening to a fresh take on his songs to realize just how exceptional Waits is as a songwriter.

Come On Up To The House is hardly the first Waits tribute record, but it is easily one of the best. Boasting an all-female cast that includes Aimee Mann, Patty Griffin, sisters Shelby Lynn and Allison Moorer and Rosanne Cash, among others, the lyrics are given a fresh perspective in this mostly stripped down affair. More often than not, the result is stunning. The opening track, Mann’s take on “Hold On,” or the stark “Come On Up To The House,” flawlessly covered by Josephine are simply sublime. While not ever song hits its mark, (Iris Dement’s “House Where Nobody Lives” is a pretty uninspired effort), there are more than enough brilliant covers here to keep you coming back to this record for years to come.      

Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits/12 tracks/Dualtone/2019

The Beaumonts – This Is Austin

Drugs, sex, Jesus and a telecaster’s twang. That’s pretty much the Beaumont formula and hell, if it isn’t enough to make your whole goddamn day.  

On their first live record, This Is Austin, recorded appropriately enough at Austin’s The White Horse, the five Lubbock cowboys turn in a monstrously hilarious best of compilation in front of a live audience. Whether it’s singing about Toby Keith (“Toby Keith is the Ugliest Woman I’ve Ever Seen”), making it big as a new Country bro (“Change My Name”) or just getting right with the Lord (“If You Don’t Love the Lord”), The Beaumonts manage to play the best country/Americana music going today. It also happens to be the filthiest, but whatcha gonna do?

In the middle of the set, frontman Troy Wayne Delco poses a handful of questions to the audience: “Who likes drinkin’? Who likes dancin’? Who likes gettin’ high?” Well it turns out The Beaumonts like getting high too, to quote Delco. And this record manages to be the perfect record to listen to while doing all three.

Irresponsible? Sure. Offensive? Possible. Blasphemous? Likely. But is it worth it? Hell, yeah! Long live The Beaumonts.

The Beaumonts – This Is Austin/12 tracks/Saustex Records/2019 / ReverbNation /

Juliana Hatfield – Sings The Police

Juliana Hatfield’s 2018 tribute to Olivia Newton-John, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (naturally), was as satisfying as it was unexpected. One of the most underrated singers of the ‘90s, Hatfield, turned her distinctively impassioned vocals on songs that for decades had become shorthand for ‘80s bubble gum pop for many cynical listeners and in doing so, was able to get across her genuine appreciation for songs that shaped her as a musician.

So, it should come as no surprise that Hatfield brings the same mix of deference and love to this set of songs by The Police, another one of her big musical influences. This collection includes some of their biggest hits (“Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Roxanne,” “Every Breath You Take”) as well as deeper cuts (“Rehumanize Yourself,” “Landlord”) and each track here is essentially a love note to the trio, building onto the foundation they created decades ago with her own unique style. And while there is not a single song on this record that should be skipped past, her versions of “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and “Canary In the Coalmine” are no less than remarkable.     

So much more than a standard covers album or tribute record, Sings the Police obviously comes from a place of joy and respect. Can’t wait to see who gets the Hatfield treatment next.   

We previously covered Juliana’s music; visit John’s review for Whatever, My Love from 2015.

Juliana Hatfield – Sings The Police/12 tracks/American Laundromat Records/2019

THE MAVERICKS – Play The Hits (CD)

Ah, the covers album. Once seen as little more than a stop gap until the band could pull together enough new material for a new album, lately, thanks to folks like Corb Lund and Ben Lee’s soon-to-be released record, cover albums seem to be moving towards a much more satisfying experimental phase (Americana Lund covering AC/DC, Indie stalwart Lee covering Fugazi, for example).  And while The Mavericks don’t venture too far beyond their influences on Play The Hits, the record is still crammed with a mix of good-to-great cover songs.

Among the best is their take on Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and the fantastically inventive spin on Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” complete with their trademark Tex Mex horns and accordion. Even on some of the more ho hum tracks here, like John Anderson’s “Swingin’” (the early ‘80s country song was never that great to begin with), the band manages to elevate the original thanks to Raul Malo’s remarkably smooth croon (his voice on Hank Cochran’s “Why Can’t She Be You” is simply stunning). The band’s stated goal was to tackle songs that they started playing early on in their three decades together as a group. That explains why Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” was in the mix, despite that song having nearly been covered to death at this point.

Though not as great as their last few albums of all original songs, Play The Hits is still a fun holdover until the band comes back with another record.

THE MAVERICKS – Play The Hits / Thirty Tigers & Mono Mundo Recordings / 2019 / Facebook /

THE MUFFS – No Holiday (CD)

Kim Shattuck, singer/guitarist for the shockingly underrated band The Muffs, died unexpectedly just weeks ago, after a two-year battle with ALS that many outside of her close circle were unaware of. She left a brilliant legacy, with half a dozen near-perfect pop punk records to her name, a dedicated fanbase and a slew of heartbroken, normally jaded music journalists who were charmed by their interactions with her over the years (myself included).

It hardly surprising then that No Holiday, a record that she and the band were in the process of promoting when she unexpectedly passed away, lives up to their already impressive output. At 18 songs (18!), their first LP in five years comes out on Omnivore Recordings, fittingly the same label that recently reissued the group’s first three records and helped remind the world just how brilliant The Muffs were. No Holiday manages to be both remarkably nostalgic, capturing the vibe of those earlier efforts, while also building on their trademark sound, adding in several new musical directions. The taut pop punk rhythms are still there as are Shattuck’s glorious fuzzy power chords and her tough as a slap to the face vocals (probably one of the most undervalued in the punk rock world), but the trio manages to expand on that sound, with some of their slower tempo jams, like “Earth Below Me” with it’s plunked out clean guitar lines and “Lovely Day Boo Hoo,” with its melancholy vibe and acoustic guitars. This diverse collection actually manages to bolster the band’s reputation. They’re a little less sloppy than that solid 1993 debut, but Shattuck’s exasperated scream in the middle of “Late And Sorry” shows they are still very much that band many fell in love with so many decades ago.

Eighteen tracks, usually a sign of a group that could use a little outside help cutting some of the fat, proves that the band was just hitting it’s stride. Eighteen songs and No Holiday still leaves you craving more. Long live Kim Shattuck.

 THE MUFFS – No Holiday/18 tracks/Omnivore Recordings/2019

Disgraceland: Musicians Getting Away With Murder and Behaving Very Badly By Jake Brennan

It takes a real knack to retell a story that many have likely heard many times before and still manage to make it compelling. As listeners of the popular podcast Disgraceland have already figured out, Jake Brenan is that rare narrator who can.

The true crime podcast focuses on musicians and those connected to them and the darkness that follows them usually connected to fame, drugs and sexual appetite, (but mostly drugs). The book, appropriately enough sharing the name of the podcast, uses the same concept and it is equally addictive. Brennan bookends this collection of stories with a focus on Elvis – fat and skinny/Elvis on the rise and on his way out. The most complex story of the bunch, it mixes a fair amount of reality –  his corrupt Con Man manager, his ballooning weight and reliance on drugs and his obsession with guns – alongside a fantastical, but wildly entertaining sequence where over the hill Elvis is talking with a svelte, cool Rockabilly version of what he could have been.

In between, Brennan recounts true stories about Sid Vicious in his last days, Gram Parsons corpse theft and Phil Spector’s bizarre relationships and the murder of one of his guests, among many other true tales.

For anyone even remotely interested in the more macabre side of rock, most if not all of these stories are likely familiar. But it’s Brenan’s flair for telling them that makes this book so captivating.          

Disgraceland: Musicians Getting Away With Murder and Behaving Very Badly By Jake Brennan/Hardcover, 288 pages/Grand Central Publishing/2019

The Lonesome Billies – Right On Time (Vinyl)

Who would have thought some of the best Outlaw Country-inspired music would be coming out of the Pacific Northwest?

On Right On Time, their second LP and first since 2015, The Lonesome Billies pick up right where they left off, but with a little more groove this time around. Across a dozen tracks of twangy Telecaster riffs and a baritone that even Waylon Jennings would envy, The Lonesome Billies prove they deserve just as much attention as folks like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell for making it safe to finally enjoy country music again.

Songs like “Sad Old Man” and the so brilliantly, smartly macabre it could have been written by Johnny Cash “If You’re Gonna Hang Me” go on to highlight just how sorely these guys have been missed over the last few years. The general song themes: death, loneliness and simply not giving a shit also bring to mind a lot of the punk acts that clearly had as much influence on the band as the Outlaw Country giants of the ‘70s.

The Lonesome Billies are back and they’ve brought more hooks and a lot more funk for this go ‘round.      

The Lonesome Billies – Right On Time (Vinyl) /12 tracks/Stay Lonesome Records/2019

Jake La Botz – They’re Coming For Me (CD)

If Dr. John grew up a punk rocker in the Midwest rather than in the jazz and funk clubs of voodoo-soaked New Orleans, chances are he’d sound a lot like Jake La Botz.

On They’re Coming For Me, the Nashville, by way of Chicago, musician turns in a wildly eclectic, deeply satisfying gumbo of blues, funk, jazz and even snatches of rock. And despite being decades younger than the brilliant, dearly missed Night Tripper, you can hear traces of his influence in both Botz’s music as well as his fantastical characters. It’s the music that first draws you in, from haunting guitars, organs and pianos. But’s it’s the characters in the songs that keep you coming back for more, whether it’s stories about Sasquatch, (“Hey Bigfoot”) or a song about a guy trying to fix everything around him with glue… or likely about something so much more (“Johnnybag the Superglue”). It’s Botz’s knack for a witty turn of phrase that makes this set so compelling. Elsewhere songs like “Grace Of The Leaves” and “Without The Weight,” two of the most stripped down tracks from this collection, manage to be just as captivating.

With They’re Coming For Me, Botz’s sophomore effort, he has manages to up the stakes considerably thanks to such a strong effort, likely earning him a slew of new followers and setting a pretty high bar for his next act.

Jake La Botz – They’re Coming For Me/12 tracks/Hi-Style Records/2019

Daystar – The Complete Recordings (CD)

Nineteen-seventy’s power pop never sounded so good. Portland-based four piece Daystar may borrow inspiration liberally from bands like Big Star, Wings and Badfinger, but their songs still manage to smack of originality. The Complete Recordings is a masterclass in building, taking the foundation of some of the best post-Beatles bands to ever commit to wax and then erecting a wildly satisfying modern take on those sounds.

Comprised of veterans of various Northwest bands, the members of Daystar – despite playing in groups that were previously all over the genre map – shared a fondness for classic power pop and it shows. Songs like the beautifully sublime “Warped Reality” and “A Lot Of Love” are vaguely nostalgic, with a timeless vibe. Elsewhere, the band shows they’re not afraid of volume with up tempo tracks like “Buttons & Brass.” Chill and mellow or turn-it-up rock and roll, The Complete Recordings has a vibe for just about any mood.

Daystar – The Complete Recordings/12 tracks/Self-Released/2019 / Bandcamp /