There is an unspoken idea that country music artists can’t be relevant or aware in music’s often self-indulgent meta-isms of today. That someone wearing cowboy boots or a stetson is somehow unqualified to talk about pop culture and the ‘in and now’ the way someone in shades and a designer leather jacket is. Somewhere along the line, our trust in understanding the world through music shifted from the endless plains to urban hooliganism and hipster clubs. While some country music can be hokey, the bad kind is not any less irrelevant than “musicians” who use computer programs instead of guitars.
Brad Paisley, now on his ninth studio album, is as relevant and eloquent as any musician who uses their music to express the world’s trials and tribulations through notes and lyrics. Wheelhouse, 17 tracks in all, is a lesson on how country music can be as smartly written and urgent as anything written from the underbelly of London or New York. While strongly rooted in Southern traditions, the album makes it a priority to stretch far past the borders of Nashville. The album’s first single “Southern Comfort Zone”, sets this tone early on, making the earnest concern that country stereotypes are just as poorly formed as any other. It waxes lyrical about how you don’t have to be country to be country, set to the backdrop of uptempo guitar-driven country rock and easy-to-digest lines; “Not everybody goes to church or watches every NASCAR race / Not everybody knows the words to “Ring Of Fire” or “Amazing Grace””. It’s perfect for the radio- any radio- replete with just the right amount of melodic resonance. The song’s message is something that permeates through the rest of the album too, that a good ol’ Southern country boy can be as worldly as just about anyone else.
In “Pressing On A Bruise”, Paisley shares the song with singer/songwriter Mat Kearney, resulting in the album’s most alterna-ready tune. Kearney’s vocal imposition and contrasting beat leaves the song somewhere between Paisley’s more traditional numbers and Third Eye Blind. The song’s accessible nature isn’t far from opening credit music for everything that was on the old WB channel (ie. Teen dramas and young adult shows).
The distinctly country-heavy tunes of the album, “Harvey Bodine” and “Outstanding in the Field”, bounce with enough country fervor but avoid the hokey Billy Ray Cyrus-ness trap. Interestingly, some of the album’s most memorable songs are when Paisley slows down the tempo- like the quietly somber “I Can’t Change The World”. In it, Paisley’s melancholic tone is a little defeatist, surrendering to the idea that we cannot affect change on a grand scale, but when it comes to the matters of the heart, we are in fact in control of that destiny; “I can’t change the world / maybe that’s for sure / but if you let me girl / I can change yours”.
He tightropes blasphemy (in the piano-clad “Those Crazy Christians”) with humor and aplomb, while doing the old-fashioned romance with style (“Beat This Summer”), but the one time Wheelhouse stumbles, is in the LL Cool J featuring “Accidental Racist”. It’s a well meaning song, about Paisley’s awareness of the sometimes ugly side of being Southern, but the LL rap verse/bridge come off as clunky. It’s not that LL can’t do his thing, it’s just that on here, he comes across as “rap for mainstream country folk” (LL actually uses the lines “I wish you understood what the world is like livin’ in the hood / just because my pants are saggin’ it doesn’t mean I’m up to no good”).
The album however, ends on a terrific note. The closer, “Officially Alive”, is everything great about Wheelhouse. Guitar soaked, upbeat and uptempo, it is a song about feeling alive while being aware that you’re alive- spreading the gospel of being happy, being in love, and being aware of impending mortality. It’s all parts Southern soul coated with the shine of radio friendly country rock and good time vibes.
It is unfortunate that country, great country especially, isn’t perceived to be as culturally relevant and/or powerful as something written by Jay-Z or Thom Yorke or whatever it is that is being pushed as the new wave of significance. The truth is, like his country contemporaries, Paisley is as in-tune with the world around him as he is the world in which he calls home. It just seems that the majority of country artists aren’t always concerned with reminding us constantly. Tastemakers are quick to push country aside, away from the lens of indie trends, flashy hip hop and schizophrenic dance music. It’s too bad because Wheelhouse is modern reflection with great conviction; clarity amongst the distortion and noise found in our current surrounds.
The Down and Dirty: An interview with The Aggrolites
We chat to “dirty reggae” kings The Aggrolites about their new record Reggae Now!
It’s been a long time between records for Los Angeles reggae band The Aggrolites. 8 years to be exact. After countless albums and endless days on the road, the band felt like it was the right time to step away from the grind of writing, recording, touring. But the extended break between records meant the band just had time to get some air, recuperate and find the charge that would ignite that next spark. That next spark ended up becoming Reggae Now!, a collection of the band’s signature “dirty reggae” sound, packed with life-affirming songs about hope and positivity. And while the album isn’t afraid to challenge and question the current landscape we find ourselves in, it doesn’t shy away from having a good time.
The record has received some lavish praise, with noted filmmaker, DJ, and Big Audio Dynamite co-founder Don Letts saying; “Their tunes perfectly echo the human chemistry you can hear in those early Jamaican productions. The band’s old-school analog sound totally captures the spirit of the music I grew up on“. While Specials vocalist/guitarist Lynval Golding has said; “This is THE album.“
It’s easy to say that one of the most influential bands of modern American reggae is back. But the truth is, they never left. In between stops of their current North American tour, we had a chance to chat with vocalist and guitarist Jesse Wagner about Reggae Now!, how it feels to have written the record on their own time, and the significance of reggae music in America.
Congrats on the new record; how does feel now that it’s out?
It feels awesome. We are beyond stoked to see how positive the vibes are coming from all the fans old and new.
It was a long time between records- 8 years. It was the right time to take a break after 2011?
We felt so. We were going hard on the road for a good decade. I think 250 days a year can wear anyone out. We never quit though. We just needed some time to do our own thing with our families and friends back at home.
How did Reggae Now! come together- was there a spark that got you guys back into the writing process?
It just felt like the right time. We had talked about it for a while and when it happened it just worked.
Was this the first time you had the chance to write and record an album without the pressure of label deadlines? How did it feel that you could just write Reggae Now! on your own time- the way you want to 100%?
Yes it was. And it felt really chill and relaxing knowing that time was on our side. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
How did you connect and end up working with Pirates Press Records? It seems like a great fit- plus their roster of artists is incredible.
I’ve known Skippy for a long time now and have been a fan of what he has been doing with Pirates Press for years. Playing the style of music we play isn’t necessarily an easy target to market. We knew Skippy and Pirates Press would know exactly what to do with our album and are all grateful for them.
For those who may not be too familiar with the Aggrolites- share with us a little bit of your history and how the band came to be?
We’ve been around since 2002. We all pretty much come from the same scene in Los Angeles and all have the same love and passion for old school Jamaican music. With that passion, the band has managed to keep it going ever since.
How has the tour been so far? You guys are hitting cities all across the US until August; how is touring and getting to meet and perform for the fans now than, say, back in 2002?
It’s been an amazing run so far. If anything, things are getting better. I think with the internet it’s easier for people to find out about certain genres of music. We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback.
I love the video for “Pound for Pound”- where did you shoot it? How was it?
It was filmed in the San Fernando Valley at an equipment rental spot called Zio. Our friend Josh Rousch was the director and mastermind behind the whole thing. We had a blast filming it. So much fun and we were stoked to have some Aggro fans involved in the video also. That was a first.
Let’s talk about reggae- because it’s such an important genre of music (in my view) and I think some people only see it in one color. But there’s a lot of history and culture- how did you discover reggae and what are some of the most important aspects of the music and culture to you and the band?
I found out about reggae probably like the majority of the American youth from the early 1990s; punk rock and Two-Tone. The thing that got me stuck on it was how tuff of a sound it is, but at the same time so beautiful. It is by far the most interesting music I’ve ever gotten into. I love how they sang about social issues going down on their small Island, but how powerful the lyrics would be in relating to people all over the world.
Reggae, and ska and rocksteady seem to have a close relationship with punk. You guys have toured with and are close to many punk bands; what is it about the two genres that make sense and connects?
I believed it all goes back to the late 1960s when reggae became popular with the working class in the UK. It’s music for the people. Songs about struggle and overcoming it. Very rebellious music also. I believe Don Letts said it best that reggae was the soundtrack to the punk rock scene throughout the late 1970s.
How important do you think music of good vibes is in today’s world? I think maybe the world could use a little more Reggae Now.
I thank you for saying that and agree 100%. We’ve always said we are “Feel Good” music. Sometimes it’s nice to just play a record and have a good time. Especially in this day and age. There is a lot of corruption going on and hopefully, we can ease people’s minds from negativity with our album.
The Aggrolites’ new album, Reggae Now!, is available via Pirates Press Records.
Allweather – Through the Floor
Debut album from San Diego’s Allweather is a compelling listen
Where did Allweather come from? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself through the first 5-6 times I listened to their debut album Through the Floor. Collectively the songs reminded me of a sound prominent in the mid-90s; tempered by the album’s melodic-hardcore demeanor. Punctuated by the terrific strained vocals, the initial reaction was to equate Allweather to a band somewhere in between early Polar Bear Club and early to mid-Transit. The music, for the most part, takes pop punk but substitutes the saccharine for more gruff melodies and the kind of pained, mid-tempo emotion that made those bands household names. But listen after listen I felt that was another connection; one that resonated with me more than those aforementioned bands did.
It hit me after listening to “Another Sad Song” for the umpteenth time- Allweather, while sonically more akin to current pop punk’s downtrodden, baggage-saddled sound, resonates closer to that of melodic-hardcore greats Lifetime. In part because vocally, Allweather’s vocalist Tim Putnam is so close to that of Ari Katz that it is almost impossible to discern between the two. And that is a very good thing- because Katz’s vocals reverberate as powerfully as it did back in 1995 as it does today. In Allweather’s case, listen to songs like “Grim Ave” and the a capella opening of “Die Slow” and you can swear that these songs are cuts off Hello Bastards or Jersey’s Best Dancers. Allweather employs more mid-tempo structures than they do Lifetime’s breakneck pace, but the sum of the parts make Through the Floor a compelling listen, even if the Lifetime comparison isn’t 100%.
“Groundswell” is probably the album’s best outing; melodic, emotional, hard-hitting in a way Texas is the Reason was, while “Die Slow” is not far behind for its sincerely great Lifetime-esque similarities.
For a band relatively new (having only released a two-song digital album prior in 2017), there is already so much to like and look forward to. Composed and packing a punch, those who miss the melodic but pained sounds of bands like Texas is the Reason, and of course, Lifetime, need not look much further than Allweather to find that what is old (and great) is new again.