Hometown: Bowling Green, Kentucky
Genre: Alternative Rock, Blues Rock, Indie Rock
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“With this record, we wanted to be more transparent,” says Matt Shultz, lead singer of Cage the Elephant. “We wanted to capture the sentiment of each song, and whatever emotional response it provoked, to be really honest to that.”
With their Grammy Win for Best Rock Album, Tell Me I’m Pretty, Cage the Elephant are pushing the advances they made with their last record—2013’s Melophobia, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Album—while also drawing from the sounds that initially inspired them to start making music back in their hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky. The results are the band’s most forceful and focused songs yet, a set of concise, punchy garage-pop with a feel that guitarist Brad Shultz describes as “a psychedelic John Wayne at an Iggy Pop show.”
Long celebrated as one of the most explosive live bands in the world, Melophobia took the band to new heights, spinning off two Number One singles on the Alternative charts, “Come a Little Closer” and “Cigarette Daydreams.” The group felt a new liberation during the course of making that record, a confidence that carried over into the sessions for Pretty.
“The last record was such a big breakthrough for us that it spilled over into this one, and allowed us to work freely from the very start,” says Brad. “Usually I feel so empty after each record—like we’ve poured everything out and there’s nothing left in the tank. But I was so inspired that I just continued to write, and it was really natural and enjoyable.”
Matt claims that some of the album’s direction can be traced to a blistering performance he gave at Bonnaroo in 2013, singing “Break On Through (to the Other Side)” at the late-night SuperJam backed by an all-star band including Robbie Krieger of the Doors. “It was a massive affirmative,” he says. “Rock and roll has become somewhat of an uncool thing to talk about in the mainstream world, almost as if it's a dirty word. With that performance, I could clearly see that it to be a hole that’s missing in music today—that classic sound and energy that people are dying for. We definitely wanted to pay homage to that, to the bands we discovered rock and roll through, the music we cut our teeth on.”
“When me and Matt started writing,” says Brad, “it was because of our father, who was a songwriter. We listened to Tommy James and the Shondells, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, the Stones. That’s what came natural to us. We were maybe fighting that on our previous records, but this time, the approach for me was that it’s sometimes better to take a step back to move forward.”
Even the lyrics came to Matt with a new sense of purpose and clarity. Two of the first songs he wrote were “Sweetie Little Jean” (based on a true episode from the Shultz’s youth, when a childhood playmate was abducted and murdered) and “Cold Cold Cold,”which developed from the idea of seeking medical treatment—not for an illness, but from life’s travails.
“It was apparent that a lot of the lyrics were going to be very personal and very story-based,” he says. “It felt way too revealing sometimes, but I wanted them to be real, with different layers, and to write songs about the scariest things to talk about—the things that everyone relates to.”
Tell Me I’m Pretty also involved major changes in the band’s roster and process. Lead guitarist Lincoln Parish left the group in 2013 to pursue a career as a producer; Nick Bockrath took over the spot, while keyboardist Matthan Minster concurrently joined the line-up.
“Going into the writing sessions I was feeling uncertain, because we had a formula with the first three albums that worked,” says bassist Daniel Tichenor. “A few days into writing, things began to click and we seemed to be developing a totally new and different sound. A new bond and friendship rekindled between us, and also, bringing in some new faces changed the dynamics and everything kind of felt like a fresh new start.”
The album also sees Cage the Elephant working with a new producer, their long-time fan and sometimes tour-mate Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. “We set out to have a classic-sounding record but with a modern sonic depth, like hip-hop or dance music,” says Matt. “Working with Dan was great. He has an incredible concept of atmosphere and vibe, and capturing the raw, first response.”
“With Dan, you may not always get the most perfect playing,” adds Brad, noting that unlike their previous albums, these songs were mostly tracked live, some on the very first take. “But he picks out the emotion and the realness, the take that evokes something within you.”
Rooted in both tradition and experimentation, Tell Me I’m Pretty marks the most definitive statement yet from a band that fought hard to stake out its own territory in the music world. “When we were younger,” says Matt, “we had this picture of what a rock and roll band was supposed to be, and we were trying to live up to a persona.”
Inexperienced and impressionable, they headed from Kentucky to nearby Nashville, signing a production deal without even having a manager representing them. Trying to elbow through the hierarchy of local bands, they eventually decamped to London, where they lived hand-to-mouth in a neighborhood so dangerous that someone was murdered outside their front door.
When they finally acquired a manager and signed to then Jive, now RCA Records, they still didn’t see a single dollar from the deal—but they did quickly connect with the platinum-selling 2008 hit “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” from their self-titled debut album.
Over time, though, Cage the Elephant grew increasingly sure of themselves and and, according to Matt, became determined to create music based on their own creative decisions, “not for commerciality or for obscurity for obscurity’s sake”.Thank You, Happy Birthday came out in 2011, reaching Number Two on the album charts, but it was with Melophobia, the members all agree, that the band truly came into its own—and on Tell Me I’m Pretty, they build on that assurance and enthusiasm.
“Within three hours of walking into the studio, we had ourselves a pretty unique, amazing track,” says Tichenor. “After that, each and every day I felt we were onto something, creating what I believe is our best work thus far.”
“I think that finally we all came together as a band,” says Brad. “For the first time, it just felt like those kids in Bowling Green, Kentucky coming to a practice space, jamming and having a good time.”
Hometown: Birmingham, AL
Genre: Southern Soul
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Sea of Noise, the second full-length album by St. Paul and the Broken Bones, marks a quantum leap in sound and style for the high-voltage Birmingham, Alabama-based band.
Produced by Paul Butler and recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, the group’s sophomore effort features an expanded eight-piece lineup of the widely praised soul-based rock unit. Longtime members Paul Janeway (lead vocals), Jesse Phillips (bass, guitar), Browan Lollar (guitars), Andrew Lee (drums), Al Gamble (keyboards), and Allen Branstetter (trumpet) are joined by Jason Mingledorff (saxophone, clarinet, flute), and Chad Fisher (trombone).
The collection of new original songs is the group’s first release on RECORDS, a joint venture of SONGS Publishing, winner of ASCAP’s 2016 independent publisher of the year award, and veteran label executive Barry Weiss.
Sea of Noise is a successor to the Broken Bones’ 2013 debut album Half the City, which introduced the group’s blazing mating of ‘60s soul fire – daubed with latter-day influences like Sly Stone, David Bowie, and Prince — to Janeway’s impassioned singing and writing. The new album witnesses a deepening and broadening of the unit’s musical reach and lyrical concerns.
“It felt like it happened organically,” Janeway says of the band’s development. “With the last record, it was like doing things with your hair on fire – going in, recording it live. There’s a sense of urgency to having a record like that. We were only a band for about five months at that point. I didn’t know my voice – I’d never done this professionally. I was just learning more nuance, and about carrying a melody. You don’t have to go for it 100% all the time. You can draw people in by giving and taking.”
Janeway says that he and his close musical associate Phillips began to ponder the direction of the band’s second album a year and a half ago. “If we had been forced to go into a studio a year and a half ago, we probably would have done a better version of Half the City,” he says. “There would have been nothing wrong with that. But we started evolving, or changing.”
Work began in earnest during last year’s Coachella festival in California: “We rented a house in San Bernardino Valley National Park. The week in between the two weekends, we really started to hash things out. Then we rented out a very hot warehouse in Birmingham where we could write. And me and Jesse and a few of us would send stuff back and forth via Dropbox. That gave me the ability to work on harmonies on the vocals. I wanted to take it up a notch, in all realms.”
Looking to such inspirations as Tom Waits and Nick Cave, Janeway was intent on lifting his game as a songwriter on material for the second album. “I’m married to a woman with a masters in literature, and I can’t show her lyrics unless I’m pretty proud of ‘em,” he says. “I had to sit and think about what I’m saying – what do I want to say, is there anything to say? What’s my perspective as this Southern kid who’s watching the modern world and feeling very much like an alien in a lot of ways. This is more personal. If you’re going to say something, say something, and don’t waste your breath unless you feel like you’re saying something.”
Janeway adds that his reading of the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, played a role in the direction of the work: “I didn’t want it to be an overly political record, but I feel it shows up a little bit on the album.”
With a full complement of new songs in hand, St. Paul and the Broken Bones entered the studio with Butler, leader of the British band the Bees and producer of Devendra Banhart and Michael Kiwanuka.
“Jesse was listening to one of his records and he said, ‘Everything sounds great,’” Janeway recalls. “It sounded like a real record – everything had depth, and was expansive-sounding. Butler ended up being the guy that we wanted to use. Producer-wise, I think we knocked a home run. He is very meticulous.”
On Sea of Noise, the band’s brawny horn-driven sound is augmented – and displaced — by the use of a string quartet and a vocal choir. The strings – recorded at Memphis’ historic Sam Phillips Recording by engineer Jeff Powell – were arranged by Lester Snell, a veteran of Stax Records sessions by Isaac Hayes, Shirley Brown, Albert King, and the Staple Singers, among many others. Janeway says of Snell, “He did all these classic, great records in Memphis – he did the string arrangements on them. The strings, for us, supply a darker tone. Horns sometimes can’t portray a certain darkness. We thought that would be the best option, instead of horn lines. We have songs on this record that don’t have any horns at all.”
Employed on “Crumbling Light Posts,” the recurring motif that appears three times on the album, Jason Clark and the Tennessee Mass Choir were recorded in another legendary Memphis facility. “The Stax Museum let us go in there after hours and record the choir,” Janeway says, adding with a laugh. “We said, ‘Well, hell, we’re in Memphis, let’s just see if they’ll do it.’ It was pretty neat, I’m not gonna lie.”
He says of the finished work, “Sea of Noise is not quite a full-blown concept record. It is focused in terms of subject matter – finding redemption and salvation and hope. ‘Crumbling Light Posts’ comes from an old Winston Churchill quote, in which he said England was a crumbling lighthouse in a sea of darkness. I always thought that was a really interesting concept – that we’re falling anyway. In this day and age, it is the noise that has defined so many things. We’re going to fall to it eventually, but for now we feel like our heads are above water. It felt anthemic.”
The album’s lyrical and emotional richness is heard loudly in stunning new compositions like “Burning Rome” (which Janeway describes as “a letter to God, if I could write it”) and the startling “I’ll Be Your Woman,” which knocks traditional soul music gender roles on their heads. Janeway says of the latter song, “I wrote that with Jesse, and he said, ‘If I can write that song, I can die a happy man, because I’ve finally made something that I feel can stand up to my standards.’”
St. Paul and the Broken Bones, which toured extensively in the U.S. and Europe behind their debut album, will put their take-no-prisoners live show on the road this fall. Their most recent concert work included arena dates opening for the Rolling Stones in Atlanta and Buffalo. Some acts may have been daunted by such a task, but not this one.
“It was pretty neat, it was pretty crazy,” Janeway says. “I love the Rolling Stones, but my train of thought is, you gotta try and blow ‘em off the stage. And that’s still my goal.”
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
Genre: Country Rock, Southern Rock, Hard Rock, Country
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Blackberry Smoke has evolved from rough-edged club act to arena-ready rock 'n' roll juggernauts, while steadily extending and expanding the Southern rock tradition. Since the group’s formation in 2000, the band has never shied away from hard work, playing more than 250 shows a year and building an everexpanding audience on the strength of its live shows. In addition to winning fans and friends throughout the United States, they've toured Europe multiple times and performed for the first time ever in Australia in 2016 to sold-out crowds. Along the way, Blackberry Smoke has found time to record a handful of independent releases, including the albums Bad Luck Ain't No Crime, Little Piece of Dixie and The Whippoorwill, plus a pair of EPs, the concert DVD “Live at the Georgia Theatre,” the live CD/DVD set Leave A Scar and their latest project Holding All the Roses, the first album the band feels properly captured their musical essence. Additionally, the band has had songs featured in movie and video game soundtracks, including EA Sports’ Madden NFL 16, performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Conan and toured with and befriended idols such as The Marshall Tucker Band, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and George Jones. For more info on Blackberry Smoke, visit blackberrysmoke.com, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and Instagram @blackberrysmoke.
Hometown: Mobile, AL
Genre: Country Rock, Southern Rock, Country
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Unapologetically Alabama. There’s a new force making major waves in country music. Natives of Mobile Alabama, Gary Stanton and Charlie Muncaster came together to form Muscadine Bloodline in early 2016. With three single releases under their belt and a schedule full of shows spanning from coast to coast, they’ve hit the ground running from day 1. Nashville took notice the first time these two stepped on the stage and it’s no surprise the rest of the music world is quickly catching on. Charlie’s [contemporary] vocals complimented by Gary’s harmonies and masterful guitar licks, MB is a powerfully refreshing mix of talent, passion and unfiltered authenticity. Infamously undaunted by the big stage, their sound intertwines the brash irreverence of early southern rockers with the seductive quality of 90s country love songs. Captivating hooks heard in songs like “Porch Swing Angel” and the aggressively anthemic “Shut Your Mouth” stand as a testament to MB’s wide ranging music-making capability. Every song and every show is a moving experience but at the same time, unmistakably Muscadine Bloodline.
Hometown: Birmingham, AL
Genre: Power Pop, Alternative Rock
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Raised on a steady supply of power-pop and alternative rock, Birmingham, Alabama’s Riverbend brings a live show full of mile-wide riffs and impassioned choruses. Formed in 2013 by childhood friends, Riverbend consists of Stanton Langley, Max Simon, Price Pewitt, and Sims Ruffino. The four-piece released an EP in early 2016 and is building their fan-base throughout the Southeast.
Vocals, Guitar / Stanton Langley
Guitar / Max Simon
Bass, Vocals / Price Pewitt
Drums, Percussion / Sims Ruffino