There’s something incredibly haunting about Austin’s Penny and Sparrow. Maybe it’s the bold, oft heartbreaking honesty behind the lyrics they write. Maybe it’s the union of two voices that sound destined to harmonize with one another. Maybe it’s the fact that these guys are so scary good with little but a guitar and a couple sets of vocal chords—and the thought that they don’t need anything else to make sincere, effortlessly stunning music.
Whatever it is that sends shivers down your spine, it works. Weaving beautifully crafted melodies and gorgeous harmonies with acoustic instrumentation, Penny and Sparrow’s Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke produce a raw, strikingly honest sound that feels just as authentic through headphones as it does live. It’s art stripped down to its very core. Bare-boned and human. And for that, it’s unbelievably refreshing.
Though both originally from different parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, as Penny and Sparrow the duo originates from Austin, a city whose intense support and wealth of live music provides a natural environment for musicians exploring and honing their artistic talents. And, perhaps, challenges in standing out in a city where, well, everyone is exploring their artistic talents.
White folks trying to sound like black folks: that’s your condensed history of rock ’n’ roll right there. Some 60-plus years of felony vocal identity theft. It may or may not have begun with Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips, who famously said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
In any event, shortly thereafter a young Elvis Presley walked through Phillips’ door, and white singers from P.J. Proby to Michael McDonald to the Young Americans incarnation of David Bowie have been giving it their soul brother best ever since. Why, even John Denver tried to horn in on the trend, and I own a mint copy of his 12-inch club hit “Get Up Offa Grandma’s Funky Feather Bed (Geriatric Sex Machine)” to prove it. None other than James Brown called it “out of sight.” Or perhaps he said, “Get it out of sight.” I’m pretty sure there’s a difference.
All of this raises the question: Who is the biggest, baddest, blackest white singer of them all? Elvis? Janis Joplin? Mick Jagger? Gilbert O’Sullivan? I don’t know about you, but my vote goes to Rob Parissi of Mingo Junction, Ohio, population 3,454. Parissi, in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, was the vocalist, guitarist, and chief songwriter behind Wild Cherry, the band that brought us the great “Play That Funky Music.” Parissi sounded so much like a brother he made Joe Cocker sound like Leo Sayer.
As for Wild Cherry—which swiped its name from a brand of cough drops—it played a hardcore hybrid of funk rock, soul, and disco that blew away other white competitors in the black sound appropriation sweepstakes such as the Average White Band and KC and the Sunshine Band. When it came to pure funk copyright infringement, Wild Cherry was King.
Electronic producer/songwriter Christopher Norman utilizes an unconventional mix of warm sounds and ambient vocals over landscapes spanning the analogue and electronic. His newest album Process comes on the heels of several successfully commissioned remixes for Katy Perry, Chrome Sparks, and Newtimers. After proving himself a potent new re-mixer, he is now debuting his original material which is the first time he has stepped to the mic.
His single “Sacrifice” plays like out like a strong sedative for a bumpy road trip. Its escalating synth punches and “less-is-more” delivery could be likened to a punch drunk Daft Punk B-Side. The song reaches deep space around the two-minute mark, when the vocals become increasingly manipulated and a cushion of artificial and organic strings emerge to assist its final climax.
Christopher is obviously an extremely talented producer with in his prior work reaching critical mass. By stepping into the vocal booth from behind the board, he also displays a rare knack for melodic songwriting and an inflected delivery unto himself. A sound that is lush with space, context and beauty.
“Sacrifice” is taken from Christopher Norman’s full length release, Process in stores on September 30.
Christopher Norman Official | Facebook | Twitter
Joe Jack Talcum’s most well-known for his long tenure in those funny-punk Philadelphians The Dead Milkmen, but over the years he’s cultivated a productive if somewhat under the radar backlog of low-tech solo work initially released on cassette. The efforts of the Happy Happy Birthday To Me label in compiling this productivity continues with Home Recordings 1993-1999; volume two details Talcum’s improvement in his second decade as a musician.
For anybody coming of age in late-‘80s USA that harbored curiosity into left of center sounds, making the acquaintance of The Dead Milkmen was basically inevitable. Popular with skate rats, lovers of college-rock, scores of MTV junkies, the surly backpack/trench coat brigade and even the occasional metalhead, they were truly a boundary-crossing outfit.
In general, the Milkmen achieved this circumstance through a punk-derived disdain for seriousness that engaged but didn’t overplay the snotty. Specifically, they delivered sarcastic, sophomoric and low-brow humor, and if there’s a crowd reliably resistant to their charms it’s those with a low tolerance for the zany.
I don’t really belong to that group but also can’t deny that most humor-based music simply fails to move me. However, I’ll openly fess up to a personal Milkmen phase, in part due to the aforementioned ubiquity. And to put a finer point on it, they’re a band with a built in audience; teenagers. As a member of this demographic I was a fan, considering their thing to be refreshingly unstuffy and flippant. Time passed and then one day, the appeal had essentially abated.
We’re taking a long weekend and will return tomorrow, 9/2.
While we’re away, why not fire up our free Record Store Locator app and visit one of your local indie record shops? Perhaps there’s an interview, review, or feature you might have missed? Catch up and we’ll see you back here on Tuesday.
Greetings from Laurel Canyon!
To all my Idelic friends, have a cool and restful Labor Day weekend. Seems Jon and the TVD gang are gonna call it a short week, so WTF—I’ll make it a short column.
This week’s playlist is the “brotha” playlist to last week’s Idelic “songs about chicks.” The way I’ve always seen life is this—I like being around a few cool dudes…and TONS of cool chicks!
Appropriately, this hour plus are songs about Jon, Bill, Jimmy, Joe, Sam, and a few others. Check it and see ya next week!
The Idelic Hit of the Week:
Gap Dream – Fantastic Sam
Gothenburg-based underground superstars Little Dragon might be the most difficult band to describe in words. I just read three different reviews of their brilliant new record on three elite hipster blogs, and after referencing the urban dictionary several times, none of them made any sense. It drives me crazy when a critic reviews a record and tries so damn hard that they end up confusing the hell out of the reader who just wants to know whether or not they should check out the band.
So, before I turn into the very critic that I am critiquing above, let me tell you how great Little Dragon is live. They deliver the entire package here folks—it’s not just a show but more of an experience. The music falls somewhere between Massive Attack, Portishead, and Motown’s Greatest Hits, while the performance is sort of like Pink Floyd hosting a rave in outer space with a charismatic MC leading the charge in the form of sultry, Swedish-Japanese vocalist Yukimi Nagano.
Nagano recently told Rolling Stone that during the recording process, she wandered around the band’s longtime hometown of Gothenberg in winter while listening to Janet Jackson. If that’s what it takes to make an epic record of this magnitude, then I would suggest that Ms. Jackson should make a comeback any day now. Maybe Thom Yorke and Chris Martin should take note as they could really use a unique angle on their new records.
PHOTOS: MAS HINO | We first heard of Steve Gunn when he opened for Kurt Vile at Bowery Ballroom, and we missed him. He could be seen playing on the side of the stage with Kurt Vile, but we really couldn’t hear him. We made the assumption that if you are playing guitar with Kurt Vile, then chances are you are probably pretty good at guitar.
Later that month we were record shopping at Academy Records, when it was on N 6th, and up on the wall with the staff picks was Time Off and it said, “Recommended if you like Gene Clark’s No Other.” And we do, very much so, and although it doesn’t have the volume of overdubs and sounds more like when Jimmy Page breaks out the acoustic, they were right on the money that us Gene fans would dig this record.
Sadly, his show last Friday at Baby’s All Right was the second time we have not been able to see Steve Gunn together. Last summer Alex was on tour when he played 285 Kent. It was right after an awesome Tiny Desk Concert performance and the release of Time Off, so we were certain it would be packed, sold-out even, but to my surprise there were 15 people in the room.
Gunn was absolutely amazing and everyone there was stunned in disbelief that so few people seemed aware of it. He was truly on another level that night, peaking in fact, and I’m so glad I was there. His show Friday was great as well, and he delivered all the goods—cyclical and melodic guitar riffs, mellow and sultry vocals, thoughtful somewhat vague lyrics that sink into my bones, songs that slowly build into epic jams that you find yourself lost in, and this time, a packed room. There was even a touch of myth in the murmurs, dudes attempting to explain Gunn’s past to their ladies.
I first heard Jacco Gardner in Oxford, Mississippi in the midst of a tour of the southern United States in 2013. I was checking out R.E.M. bootlegs, of which there was a vast selection, at a store called The End of All Music. On the store stereo was the record Cabinet of Curiosities by Jacco Gardner. They only had the one copy, and after some negotiation, Matt (one of my partners in rock) managed to score it.
We proceeded to drive all over America, and quite often this record was our soundtrack. Through rain, snow, desert heat, darkest night, and blurriest morning, Jacco always delivered.
In November of 2013, the men and I found ourselves in Manchester, England with a day off. We decided to go out and explore. Manchester is one of the classic music towns in the world, full of history and interesting people. We decided we should check out the place we were going to play the next night and seek refreshment. Once there, and successfully refreshed, we realized that Jacco was playing across the street that night. Great news indeed.
The show was glorious and intimate. It was sold out, but it could only hold 30 people at most. I remember being really struck by the back wall projections. I had forgotten how effective a vibey projection can be. How it can actually change the meaning of a song, and if not change it, then subliminally nudge your mind to listen with a different viewpoint. After the concert we met and chatted with Jacco and the rest of the group and generally made merry. I got the record for myself this time and counted down the days till we got home for Thanksgiving.