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CD Review: Joe Pug – Nation of Heat

Chicago-based singer-songwriter Joe Pug has been riding the wave of a lot of buzz recently, and for once it’s justified. Brash and ambitious as this debut is, we need those qualities in times like these. Pug’s not afraid of the mic like those legions of wimpy, strung-out Conor Oberst wannabes, and for once the material here lives up to its author’s stance. With more than a mere nod to early Dylan, this cd is just Pug and his acoustic guitar with occasional harmonica. His myspace lists John Prine as a big influence, which comes across mostly in his casually smart, metaphorical lyricism; there also seems to be some Richard Buckner and maybe a little Billy Bragg in there somewhere too. Pug’s songs can be self-referential, some might say bordering on self-mythologizing (he calls a couple of them hymns), and selfconscious, but not in a pretentious way. Resolute, defiant, tuneful and often really funny, Pug loves images, and he’s very, very good at them. And perhaps true to his name, Pug is pugnacious.

 

The cd opens with a shot across the bow called Hymn 101, a more apt title than it might seem, especially in the wake of the election. It’s a hymn to the hope of throwing out the old to make way for the new, the triumph of youthful yet knowing optimism over smug complacency:

 

The more I buy the more I’m bought

And the more I’m bought the less I’ve caught

 

The cd’s second track Call It What You Will is a breakup song, a tongue-in-cheek study in semantics:

 

I called today disaster, she calls it December the third…

Some call an end a beginning, this time they’ll go unheard

Call it what you will

Words are just words

 

Pub returns to defiant mode with the vivid Nobody’s Man (as in, “I’d rather be nobody’s man than somebody’s child.”). Hymn 35 seems to be a stab at personifying some timeless quality – justice, truth? – what it might be is never clear. I Do My Father’s Drugs, by contrast, is a bristling, wickedly lyrical slap upside the head at clueless, irresponsible, knowitall baby boomers, a spot-on illustration of history repeating itself:

 

If you see me with a rifle don’t ask me what it’s for

I fight my father’s war…

All the streets in Cleveland are named for Martin Luther King…

When the party starts on Monday and Christmas comes in June…

I’ll be leaving soon

 

The most traditional of the songs here, Speak Plainly Diana is an optimistic Obama-generation anthem:

 

There’s a wrecking ball in the front yard but there’s blueprints on the couch…

Steal from the tallest cabinet and make your favorite sound

 

The cd closes with the title track, and it’s arguably Pug’s strongest, heat taking on as many meanings here as he can squeeze into a tight couple of lines:

 

So swift and so vicious are the carnival rides

And the carnival barker’ll yell your name for a price

We’ve got billboards for love and Japanese cars

…all the streetlights call themselves stars

The more that I learn the more that I cheat

I come from the nation of heat

 

In other words, this guy gets it. And if the way he beats on his guitar is any indication, he sounds like he could be great live. Watch this space for NYC dates; Pug kicks off a Texas/Colorado/Midwest December tour on Dec 5 at at 10:30 PM at Stubb’s BBQ, 801 Red River in Austin.

November 28, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Patti Rothberg – Double Standards

Although like a lot of folkies, Patti Rothberg plays under her own name, she’s not one of them. She’s a rocker through and through. This is her greatest shining moment so far, a deliriously catchy collection of fiery powerpop songs that sometimes border on punk. Along with the boost in volume, she’s really taken her songwriting to the next level – ever since her big breakthrough cd Between the 1 and the 9, she’s always had a knack for a juicy hook and a terse, understated double entendre, but this album explodes with them. If Elvis Costello had done an album with the Go Go’s before they imploded and he became Mr. Classical for awhile, this would be it. Musically, it’s a particular triumph for Rothberg since she plays most of the guitars and bass and does all the vocals here as well. The cd kicks off with Alternate Universe, catchy with a bouncy, almost trip-hop feel, followed by Eye to Eye, an unabashedly hook-driven pop song with something of an 80s vibe.

 

The cd’s cynical, sardonic title track is a showcase for Rothberg’s characteristically tough, defiantly individualistic lyricism, snidely dismissing “the devil of the double standard, and heaven isn’t very cheap.” The best cut on the album is After the Parade, a big, mostly acoustic, beautifully metaphorical ballad. Rothberg’s vividly imagistic tableau sets those who came to lift their heavy hearts alongside the rest of the crowd who just came to party: “Please don’t ruin it for the rest of us,” she cautions. She follows that with Inventory, a big piano ballad with strings, pensive but optimistic with lusciously watery Leslie-speaker guitar. The bouncy, midtempo Hard Times brings back the cynical feel, as does the fast, defiant Retrograde:

 

I was never cast in shows

I was casting shadows

 

The catchiness doesn’t let up on the second half of the album, either. Get Away with It is blasting pop-punk with more than a few echoes of the Blondie hit One Way or Another. The tongue-in-cheek yet intense Chaste Away builds to a ferocious,  almost punk chorus. The cd wraps up with a surprisingly quiet acoustic tribute to a friend, a pedal-to-the-metal ode to a mini-SUV, a lush, richly arranged cover of the Stones classic Sway (from Sticky Fingers), another big ballad that builds from dreamy to crushing and finally a terrific, oldtimey acoustic ragtime song. Freddie Katz’ spot-on production puts all those layers of guitars and Rothberg’s voice – playful but wickedly edgy, with just the hint of a rasp – out front where they belong. This could be the soundtrack to a smart indie comedy flick, it sounds like it would be a great highway album and it ought to do well in Europe (corporate radio over here being terrified of people like Rothberg because she’s so much catchier than anything the major labels, in their final grotesque seconds, are releasing, and they’re the only ones still willing to fork over the payola). Available at better record stores, online and at shows, watch this space for upcoming dates.

November 28, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment