Frank Gutch Jr: A Spoon Full of Estrogen Helps the Music Go Down (Easier)— A Glance at The 81s with Luella, Elouise, and Goldie Wilson; Plus Notes…
Women. You can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without ’em, so the general attitude seems to be. These days, it’s a topic I would rather not broach, so many ready to take offense at the drop of a hat, but who can blame them? The United States, in my mind one of the most open cultures in the world (until the Orange Shitgibbon came along), never gave them their just due. We said we did, but saying and doing are so far apart anymore. Maybe always was. I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a family which was as close as you could probably get to democratic. Not in the early days, of course, but who would want to put a family at the mercy of a five- or eleven-year old? Still, us kids were included in most decisions— the ones which involved us kids, anyway.
We seem to be at another crossroads now. I thought we had stepped beyond the draconian laws and attitudes of the past, but maybe not. If we had, we are backsliding feverishly and I don’t like it any more than anyone else. As regards women, I never saw outright discrimination outside of the workforce, though I never wanted to be in their shoes. It was hard enough to negotiate the everyday, I always thought, without having to worry about certain peoples reactions to my or anyone else’s sex.
It is coming back to haunt us men, if men we are. I guess we could be a group by definition, just as are Republicans and Democrats. God forbid we be accepted on our own merits. Just the other day, a lady (I can use the term lady, can’t I?) posted on Facebook that she had had enough, that three “old men” had told her that day that she should smile more, that she had had enough of people telling her what to do and she wasn’t taking any more of it. Man, you should have read the responses. Women were evidently awaiting such a post because one after another took their shots and the estrogen knocked me right off the thread, or tried. It was a Fuck Men-athon of incredible proportions. Well, I should amend that. It was mostly a Fuck Old Men-athon. Most didn’t seem to really hate men as much as preferring them young and with good shoulders and a nice ass, I suppose. I was saddened a bit. I am one of those Old Men who tell the occasional woman she should smile more. I say it as a compliment. I love women, physically and otherwise, and love their smiles. There is something beautiful in it when they are sincere.
I think we have gotten too literal in this day and age. I think we may be losing contact with context. Words are words. Unless you put them in context, there is only definition. Context gives words life.
It gives music life, too. I grew up in a time when women were not groomed for the stage, when they supposedly had a “place.” As a result, relatively few were allowed to follow their dreams (or at least discouraged to do so). Do you have any idea how much we lost? Neither do I, but I know it was much more than we realize. More than we could afford, too. I look back at the record business and wonder why there was a dearth of female musicians, female guitarists, female engineers, female producers. It’s not like there were that many less females. We blew it. “We” blew it. All of us. And I thought we were on the way to correcting it, or at least part of it. And then the shitgibbon hits the fan.
But this is supposed to be about music and from here on out, it will be. Promise. Because I love women and mostly I love women in music (the vast majority of that being women in rock). I’ve known since the sixties when the world gave us The Jefferson Airplane with both-but-not-at-the-same-time Signe Tole Anderson and Grace Slick, Mother Earth with Tracy Nelson, Janis Joplin and Big Brother, Joy of Cooking and others who, if but for a short time, based themselves in or around San Francisco. I was blown away by SF’s music scene and especially their openness to the ladies.
I’ve looked for women in rock ever since. Actually, before that even. But what I found is that on the whole, when a lady enters the fray (unless it’s like the sitcoms wherein they bring in superstars for guest appearances, making it look too obvious) it makes the music better.
I am not really sure if the inclusion of Luella Mathes in The 81s makes the music better but I am willing to bet that it gave the band more depth. While Tom Siering and Tim Carroll were recording the first 81s album, Luella was bopping around Nashville with a band, Luella & The Sun, and them solo. Truth be told, I had yet to hear either but PR man Adam Dawson changed that recently. A simple would you please listen to this became my obsession and I have been digging since.
For one thing, I had no idea who Carroll was, though I had read his name here and there. Turns out he is one fine guitarist, which is why The 81s formed in the first place.
“(I had seen Tim play,” said Siering, “and was impressed by him as a musician and a person. I engaged him to play and produce on another project that I was involved with that ultimately begat four albums: Rebecca De La Torre‘s Incognito, The Road, Voir Dire and Cuatro. (If you want to hear some tasty guitar, I suggest you watch at least a portion of this. The Tom Ms. de la Torre refers to is, indeed, Tom Siering)
“Not surprisingly, we spent a lot of time in the studio; talking and tinkering. We came to discover that we had a lot of the same musical influences: The Clash, Creedence, Neil Young, Velvet Underground. I asked him if he wanted to do something guitar driven and angry. He said yes.
“In 2015, I took a two week vacation to South America and wrote most of the lyrics that populate The 81s first record, Just One Word: Fin Del Mundo. (The title is a bit of a pun) The project went really well. Tim is brilliant to work with.”
Luella, in the meantime, was working her way through the Nashville music scene. Previous to working with Carroll, she fronted Luella & The Sun, a band with a bit of a punch. The video below will give you an idea. It was recorded at a studio known as Wow & Flutter not long after a fire had obliterated the actual studio. What people do, eh?
“I’m from Milwaukee,” she wrote, “but moved to Nashville after I graduated high school in 2000. I recorded music under my real name Melissa Mathes (although I prefer to go by Luella). A few years ago I was in a band called Luella and the Sun, but have been going by Luella, artistically, since departing. Not long after, I started hanging out with Tim. We worked together for awhile and eventually made a record, my first since my time with The Sun. Tim and I share a rhythm section which makes it easy and since we play in each others bands, we know each others material).
“I recorded my record at a place called the Bomb Shelter, where tim also recorded. When Tom (who is the other half of The 81s) learned I was a singer, he invited me to record with the 81s. A Velvet Underground w/Nico sort of thing, he said. They had already released a record as The 81s. Big Man is the second, this one recorded as The 81s with Luella. Tim thinks the project was suggested the winter of 2015/2016. I sang We Got to Meet Death One Day at a Christmas party he hosted with Tim on guitar, myself, Marco Giovini on drums and a bass player. A girl Tom also works with (assumedly Rebecca de la Torre) also played, her band featuring Tim and Marco.
After that trip I think we began putting together a record with me in mind. Tom, prior to that, had already been sending Tim lyrics to put to music and Tim had been having me sing some on those as they developed. So when the idea eventually became clear, I became more involved. Everyone who played on the record (Big Man) knew each other from Nashville— Tim and I and Marco. Marco has since moved to Massachusetts. Cameron Carrus (bass on the last record) has only lived in Nashville a few years and has been playing with Tim and I for two to three years as our go-to bass player. We involved him on the album, too, which was a really fun experience.”
According to Siering, “I had heard Tim and Luella play a few gigs together and like them. One day, an idea for the follow-up album hit me: a modern version of The VU with Nico. It was a natural! I am quite proud of the result. Unlike a lot of modern music, Big Man is about SOMETHING, musically and lyrically.”
Something, yes, but if he was to be honest, it is about a lot of somethings. There is adventure on the album, a lack of direction almost, which adds to more than detracts from the album. Everyone gets his or her moment in the sun and the result seems to parallel that first VU album. In fact, the first track (Go Now) could very well be part of that VU album.
The sound gets spread around, though. Rather than try to replicate VU in its basic form, the song remains the focus. When I first heard the album, in fact, this is what I wrote:
As basic as the music is, it isn’t. Three songs in and I had a string of notes citing Velvet Underground, The B-52s, Big Brother & The Holding Company, sixties garage and punk. The 81s are brash, retro and futuristic with sidesteps to brilliance, the lead guitar sloppy but immaculate, the bass and drums primordial and driving. Which is enough, but Luella’s petulant little girl voice over the bluesy rhythm guitar and tasty lead on “My Shoes” has me digging deeper, searching for lines like “I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue” in just the right places and listening for that guitar sound which seems to be perfect but always changing. I’ve been searching for a few weeks now. It is an adventure.
I have repeated that phrase in each and every piece and review I have written about the band not because it is truth, though I believe it is, but because it sums up what I think is the very essence of what they created: songs created on their own on an album which ties them all together.
Are These Guys Famous Yet?
Elouise is not the first band to drag me through swampwater. A few years ago, a little known band out of Roanoke VA planted eggs in my ears which hatched and slowly ate their way from the left ear to the right— or was it right to left— and worked their way back again. Sinking Creek, they were called, and they were an amalgamation of swampgas and rancid water put to music. Don’t get me wrong. I loved them, but I thought I would never hear anything quite as eerie unless alligators began mating with Swamp People and escaped the sludge for a chance to lay down their weary tunes. Then Elouise oozed out of SoCal with their formulated swampgas and I was stuck in quicksand again.
Deep Water, as emanated through the video above, was the first thing I heard and I was thinking, wow, Sinking Creek, but I was wrong. There was a whole album of unearthly sounds I would work my way through before the end of the album. I listened to that album a lot for awhile and every time was a new experience. In the daytime it was uplifting but unnerving. On rainy days, depressing but in a very mellow way. At night, anywhere from disturbing to downright frightening.
The voice is the key— sometimes apathetic and droning, sometimes musically incoherent, sometimes anathema to the music itself. Very dramatic, it changed not just with the song but the phrase. I had to write about it, whether I could understand it or not, and here is my review as published in No Depression.
I’m driving down the road at two in the morning, tired, an albums length away from home. Of the three CDs I have with me, only one has remained unheard. I slip it into the player and turn up the sound, hoping to ward off the sleep demons and some of the most godawful music I’ve ever heard starts to ooze out of the speakers— the vocals vampish, dark— the stringed instruments sounding waterlogged or warped or maybe strung with actual catgut. There doesn’t seem to be more than two chords and it drones on in a sort of apathy and I’m thinking about tossing it out the window (okay, that’s just a euphemism, whatever a euphemism is) but something prevents it. Track two— two different chords and a voice that does not sound like it has been phoned in. Is this about death? Track three— New Orleans jazz? Trumpet, trombone? What the hell? I get it. The album is soundtrack from the Twenties. Old black-and-white cartoons flash before my eyes. But it has a hook, if hook you can call it. Track four— a bizarre take on “Amazing Grace?” Is it actually “Amazing Grace?” It is so far out there I can’t tell. Track five— something straight out of border radio— so backwoods and immediate it sounds like it was recorded at the radio station those clowns visited in O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
All thoughts of tossing the CD are gone now. I’m beginning to understand and the more I understand the more I like it only now it is beyond like. I am falling in love with this album. Shades of The Beige’s El Angel Exterminador it is, stretching and pushing and pulling in terms of creativity with just enough musical cache to hold it together.
Track seven— “Evil.” A study in bass viol… or is it vitriol? Deep, deep texture. Short but not sweet. My mind thuds. Again, what the hell?
Track eight— “Hurricane.” Voice slightly distorted, shades of Alice Texas. Not talking blues but it is talk, of sorts. Rhythm and chaos. Pounding drums, orchestral dissonance. Film music a la The Last Rites of Ransom Pride. Desert on the duster.
Track ten— More music for black-and-white cartoons. Deep, dark and yet somehow uplifting.
“Silent Night?” Are you kidding me? Not anything like the Christmas song outside of the lyrics. Again, what the hell? But it is good! Really good! It just isn’t for Christmas anymore.
Kim Grant, the publicist who sent me the CD, could have warned me. Rich Dembowski is part of this band. He was the force behind Old Californio, a band everyone should research and a band I love(d). Kim knows this. His old buddy, pedal steel player Woody Aplanalp, who was also with Old Californio, plays on a track also. This isn’t anything like Old Californio. It is quite unlike the vast majority of things I have ever heard, in fact.
They call it blackgrass. I suppose there is a reason. I didn’t read the promotion sheet which came with the CD. I didn’t want it to cloud my judgment. I’m almost afraid to read it now. I could easily have gotten everything wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Oh, and before I forget. This is the first album I have come across in some time which sounds like its album jacket. Ponder that, if you will.
I am sure that the review was courtesy of a pot of coffee (or oil sludge, as my father used to call it). I do not recommend caffeine before listening. In fact, you might think of a week-long body purge.
The thing is, this album would not even be close to the same without Elouise herself. Estrogen making a point? You decide.
Music To Paint Houses By
Years ago, I spent almost an entire summer painting the house. To be fair, it was an unusually hot summer so for long stretches the painting had to be limited to early morning. To me, painting (at least, house painting) is mental therapy, so I was afloat and alone in my own little world, few neighbors knowing what I was doing (the sound of a hammer or saw usually draws a crowd which would make a minor league baseball team envious). Momma had given me wireless headphones the previous Christmas, so I popped those puppies on my head in spite of them making me sweat and proceeded to paint. Two albums— Sydney Wayser‘s The Colorful and the self-titled album by Seattle’s Goldie Wilson. For those who don’t know, Goldie was not a person but a band and they featured a female vocalist of whom I would become enamored by summer’s end— one Rose Bergdoll.
The band could have functioned quite well without her, and in fact they did, but there was something she gave the band which they did not have otherwise. A vocal presence outside the genre or something. This is the only video I have found which shows Bergdoll on stage with the band.
But here is the music I was hearing that whole summer. Just far enough out of the box to be interesting, if not downright intriguing.
It’s the voice. So imagine how thrilled I was when I found this oddball track while trying to track down Bergdoll to see if she was doing anything presently. This must have been recorded right after she left Goldie Wilson.
Ah, what a summer that was. Both Bergdoll and Wayser have been on my radar ever since. Wayser, by the way, has resurfaced as Clara-Nova, in case you didn’t know. God knows where Bergdoll is. I hope she’s still in the music game. She sure made Goldie Wilson stand out for me.
Well, it’s late and I know you have things to do, so I will close this and serve up some…
I have been listening a lot to The 81s with Luella the past few weeks and am enthralled. When I saw this video of Luella & The Sun, I was blown away. With The 81s, she is somewhat subdued and supportive. With The Sun, she is… well, watch this and find out. And turn it up!
Good God! Elouise is cut from the same broadcloth which gave us swampgas and Sinking Creek. There is more here than snake handling and moonshine. Swear to God!
Just for your edification (or eddication, whichever you need most), here is Sinking Creek. Music made from swampgas and tripe, among other things.
Man, I just wrote a review on a J.D. Malone & The Experts album and I can’t get the sound out of my head. This isn’t from the new album, but gawdamn!
Dan Miraldi passes along a link to this video by his good friend Jenna Fournier. A bit of light Pop for your enjoyment.
Wha-a-a-at? Dala‘s Sheila Carabine going solo? If you think that’s blasphemy (a thought that crossed my mind), listen to this stunner! Sheila, I will never doubt you again!
This Nocona video was posted recently. I had forgotten how much I love this song! New album imminent? I can hope, can’t I?
File this under how cool is this? I recently was made aware that the US of A was not the center of the universe back in the eighties, that Turkey did, indeed have a burgeoning music scene built upon funk and cassettes, of all things. Take a listen to the video below to hear some samples. Man, they had something going on, I do believe! If you want further information, you can check it out by clicking here. Happy hunting!
Frank’s column appears every Tuesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”