Photo by Amanda Laurick
There is a long-awaited show to take place tomorrow evening at the Conor Byrne Pub in Ballard. Ball of Wax alumnus (featured on Volume 10, according to my research) and all-around local luminary Casey Ruff will play with cohorts The Mayors of Ballard. Friday night will mark the official debut of new bass player Caleb Bue, and will feature members of the Georgetown Orbits as horn section.
Casey Ruff and the Mayors of Ballard deliver a reliably good time, disarmingly genuine americana bar rock perfect for drinking, carousing, perhaps even rollicking (yes, verb, to rollick), belying carefully-crafted songs and arrangements for the close-listeners among us. Continue reading
I’m not sure what exactly possessed Rob Anderson of Day Laborers and Petty Intellectuals to meld a lightly mocking self-portrait of nostalgic hipster culture with an old folk song first recorded by Lead Belly, but it was an inspired move. Anderson and co. intersperse lyrics that will strike a little close to home for those of us who might be known to play old folk songs on acoustical instruments, subscribe to quarterly magazines, and be possessed of between three and seven tattoos with refrains from the classic song in what is either the ultimate in double-backflip self-conscious irony, or an earnest attempt at examining this strange cultural moment we find ourselves in via the tools at hand (self-mockery, nostalgia, and music). Whatever is going on here, I’m pretty sure it would make Indie Rooney‘s head explode.
Concept aside, the arrangement and production on this song are fantastic; the band gradually builds and swells, holding off on the big refrain for as long as possible, drawing back like a wave from the shore, and then lapping your toes again with Anderson’s final statement on the subject. This band has a lot going on, and will no doubt be a blast to see live tomorrow night at the Ball of Wax 34 release show.
At this point Virgin of the Birds might have racked up the most appearances on Ball of Wax of anyone apart from myself – and, for that matter, VotB mastermind Jon Rooney has likely written the most blog posts on this very site, after me. I’m sure the two phenomena are connected; he’s a thoughtful, committed artist and writer who also seems to truly appreciate being a part of the Ball of Wax community, and on this Thanksgiving I am thankful to have benefited from his participation over the years, both musically and verbally.
“Formalist Girls” starts off softly, the waltz beat marked out with a shaker and the chords traced by keyboard and softly strummed electric guitar before Jon’s voice comes in, dry and deadpan as always, with a touch of slapback delay. Something about the song and its production evoke a late night to me; I can practically picture Jon in the dark of his quiet home, hunched over microphone and recorder with headphones and guitar – and then sure enough, the chorus ends with the line “we need night in its place,” and whatever that place is you seem to be there. The second half of the song breaks down to a false coda with a nod to Kate Bush, building to a frenetic guitar solo and pounding MIDI drums before dissolving back to one more chorus and releasing us alone into the night.
MIDI drums and keys are all well and good, but having a chance to see the full-band live incarnation of Virgin of the Birds is really where it’s at – providing yet one more reason that you must attend the Ball of Wax 34 show on Saturday!
Yucca Mountain is the current musical manifestation of Ball of Wax mainstay Jeremy Burk. Burk has a towering rasp of a voice – a legitimate, powerful instrument capable of stopping a room in its tracks. Burk puts that voice to good use in leading Yucca Mountain through “Garden.” The first couple of verses stalk pretty loosely around a simple chord progression before the tension builds with a double time bassline and antsy drumming. By the two and a half minute mark the tension comes to a boil and Burk unleashes his bestial pipes to push the song to a foreboding climax. “Garden” is a gnarly yeti of a song and a nice change-up to the more subdued vocal/guitar tracks on Ball of Wax 34.
I don’t do this often, but I specifically requested a song from Colin for Ball of Wax 34, and then had to practically lock him in his studio and force him to record it. I don’t know why, but it just didn’t seem right to have a collection of waltzes without one by him. My instincts were right, though, as he came through with a doozy. You know you’re in for a treat with a song that starts off “I wanted to write a nice song for you, so full of optimism and love, so pure in form and intention, devoid of ironic poseury.” I want to tell you the last few words of the lyrics, but you really have to hear them in context for yourself (I actually laughed out loud on the bus the first time I listened through this song). Complementing the beautifully absurd lyrics, the song is gorgeously composed, arranged, performed, and produced in inimitable CJN style. The waltz beat swings through the whole thing, but the structure is a slippery thing, taking strange melodic and chordal turns. “Dedication” refuses to give us a chorus, but there’s a progression that fills the role, repeating a few times behind different sets of words and a couple majestic guitar solos. The genius of the lyrical and musical structure both take a few listens to fully absorb, and by that time you will be completely hooked.
It’s a rare treat to see Colin J Nelson play live with a full band; I’m really excited to see them play this and a few other greats from his catalog at the Ball of Wax 34 release show this Saturday.
Unai Azkune is, as far as I know, Ball of Wax‘s first Spanish contributor. “Bálsamo de Tigre” is a simple, moving song featuring only voice (sung in English) and some deft fingerstyle nylon-string acoustic guitar. There’s something really great and effective about the guitar playing, both simple and intricate, conveying the sadness of the lyrics. “Bálsamo de Tigre” is a song of somber longing, an earnest ballad that certainly has its dirge-y moments.
whole halves‘ “Snowflakes” waltzes at a restrained, patient pace and features little more than a couple of voices and a couple of acoustic guitars. While not as glacial in its pacing, ”Snowflakes” is reminiscent of Low’s more immediate and engaging work: meditative and mature while still maintaining a sense of prettiness. whole halves is new to the Ball of Wax fold and I’m really looking forward to hearing more of their music at the Ball of Wax 34 release show coming up on November 30th at Conor Byrne in Ballard.
Our old friend Joshua Morrison has a new band! I first fell in love with Joshua’s understated, breathy approach via some home-recorded songs on a Myspace page in 2005, and was delighted to include one of those songs on Volume 2 of Ball of Wax. He still brings the same hushed voice and subtle touch to his music, but the intervening eight years’ experiences have doubtless brought new depth to his thinking and writing. He recently teamed up with the dream team of Matt Brown, Jeramy Koepping, Jon Wesley, and Jacob Evans to form St. Kilda, a welcome new chapter in his musical story. If you haven’t heard the germ of this band, the incidental music that Morrison, Koepping, and Brown created for Megan Griffiths’s soul-shattering film Eden, I highly recommend you check it out. The movie is emotionally devastating without being exploitative or manipulative, and the music is the perfect complement.
On “Bastille Day,” the band again hits that mark of being emotionally evocative without going over the top, and Joshua’s always-restrained voice doesn’t need to soar to histrionic heights when his straightforward lyrics pack more than enough heft on their own. It’s a powerful and rare gift to hear a military veteran speak or sing about his experiences in the way Joshua has here: “I’ve been searching all over for another noble cause that may be worth risking our life and our limbs, but they risked it all. And there’s nothing left for you and me, nothing at all.” Hearing this, I feel incredibly fortunate that we have this accomplished group of musicians to help give voice to these words in such a beautiful way.
Caroline Keys’s “Les Grillons (Labor with Enthusiasm)” is an original and uniquely satisfying contribution to Ball of Wax 34. It opens with some sort of found sound layer (a church sermon? a political rally?) then quickly introduces a mandolin playing arpeggios and a pretty one-handed piano melody. Other than the smatterings of found sound (I’m pretty sure it’s a gospel church service), there are no vocals, no lyrics, no narrative. Random sounds drift in and out, some percussive, others washes of soft pink noise but the mandolin and piano loop patiently through their figures without changing. Keys pulls off the oft-bungled “A” song structure with her hypnotic, vamping set piece – no chorus, no bridge, no coda. It’s a beauty and a welcome zag from all the songier zigging on volume 34.
Keys is another Ball of Wax veteran, with contributions to Volumes 27 and 32, among others. She also plays in a band called Stellarondo and she recently received the LEAW Family Foundation Fellowship for Montana Artists at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Matt Taylor’s solo project amattacat – new to the Ball of Wax fold under this name, although Matt appeared on Volume 30 with his band Proud Wonderful Me – brings us another entry into the just-guitar-and-voice category. This recording is about as stripped down as can be, making use of just one guitar and one voice to produce an alternately charming and creepy number that last decade would probably have been labeled “freak-folk.” Unlike “Fairuza” I am quite sure that this song is about cats – it’s right there in the song title! and the band name! – although as with Emiko’s song I still have questions about what exactly is going on here, and am perfectly happy to play the song over and over as I try to answer them. There’s something about the dark, vaguely paranoid environment created by the steadily finger-picked guitar, Taylor’s tremulous yet commanding voice, and the tantalizingly fractured narrative of his through-composed lyrics that I find compelling and satisfying.