Them Bird Things – Stephen Crow Must Die
Imagine a nightclub in London in 1964 or 65. The air is thick. The temperature is high. A cloud of smoke hangs above the sweaty bodies of a bunch 20-somethings gathered to see a concert. They clap their hands and stomp their feet while the band on stage plays an upbeat R&B with raw power. The electric guitar screams and the singer growls. The music invokes primal instincts and the audience has never seen anything quite like that. Everybody is living the blues. Lust. No more I wanna hold your hand.
Get the picture?
This black and white sequence is what Them Bird Things evoke in their newest album, titled Stephen Crow Must Die. The 16 tracks that make up the album feel louder and rawer than any British Invasion group ever was.
True to their DNA, Them Bird Things have ditched the acoustic guitars and mandolins of their previous albums. No more storytelling folk-rock songs. Forget the country. After a triptych (Wildlike Wonder, Pachyderm Nightmares, The Bride Who Came to Yellow Sky) that painted a peculiar, twisted Americana of tall tales and lovable losers, it only seemed right to return to electric instruments. “There was nothing else to explore”, tells me producer Will Shade after one mixing session earlier this year.
Simply put, Stephen Crow Must Die is only rock and roll: choruses, hooks, stinging electric guitars. It uncovers many tones of rock. Songs like “House of Stone” and “Love Is a Vendetta” shine with hooks and pop melodies, and the muscular guitar of “Alcoholocaust (I’m Drunk Again) blows the speakers off while Salla sings with lust. “Slim Harpo Sez” ticks the boogie blues off with their take on Harpo’s own “Shake Your Hips”. The nasty guitar solo in “Call Me Calamity (The Great White Hope) opens a gateway to the deep corners of our mind, which eventually is fried with the slow-burning, bad-tripping “Let Us Burn”. Fortunately, a school bell rings before the closer “Wife of Bath” returns us to sanity.
Two instrumentals anchor the record. The original “I, Julius” soundtracks a manic road trip fueled by illegal stimulants and police sirens. The cover of Manfred Mann’s “Why Should We Not” invites us to look at our doppelgänger in the Black Lodge.
Few records can pack such diversity of rock songs and avoid cliché. The band’s secret weapon —or rather weapon of mass destruction, is vocalist Salla Day. Where early albums saw Day putting the dark spirits of the blues into the country, this record allows her voice explore uncharted territory. Lacking the lungs to be a powerhouse like Brittany Howard or a scream-fest like Janis Joplin, Day sings with such refined subtlety, able to convey the full spectrum of human emotions, from a world-weary sensuality to an effortless playfulness. In the current musical landscape I can only think of Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards as an equally engaging and peculiar female rock and roll singer. Think of Judy Henske joining The Yardbirds circa 1966.
Surprisingly enough, the vocalist did not think twice about stepping out of her comfort zone and sing rock and roll songs. “I’m usually a control-freak, but this time I had a very hands-off approach. Everything’s going to be ok, I told myself. It was easy to sing these songs”, Day admits.
Any grandiose rock album must have a guitar hero. So, please, welcome Mr. Julius Heikkilä, the new guy in the band. Freed from any constraints, pushed to invent new sounds, his work is outstanding all over the record, playing with such versatility. No room for blues and rock clichés. As producer Shade told his guitarist: “play less Robert Cray and more Link Wray”.
The creative process of Them Bird Things is much about doing things the most fucked up way. Or say, creatively different. Expect the unexpected. That being bagpipe solos or crossdressing for promotional photos. For this album, the band came up with an idea to make the recording a bit more complicated. It’s 2017, so why not to go analogue and record on tape? Coming by tape and analogue recording equipment is not simple these days. Just on time to start the recording sessions, producer Will Shade lucked out when he acquired a bulky tape machine at a a Finnish Broadcasting Company auction.
“Gentlemen, we’re rolling”, says Salla Day before launching into “In the Shadow of Mulatto Mountain”. That moment halfway through the album invites you into the studio. Stephen Crow Must Die captures a group of people playing together in a tiny room. That’s exactly how the recording happened at Cat’s Pajamas, the band’s own home studio by the seaside in Southern Helsinki. In the old wooden house, much of the music was recorded live, and tape adds an extra layer of warmth to the sound. “We rehearsed there and we taped all the time. Whenever we had a good take, that was the beginning of the actual track on the album. And, we played loud and when [drummer] Affe Forsman can bang the drums, he’s at his best,” explains bassist Tapani Varis.
As a result, there is a sense of fun and joy. “It was a fun project. Not much stress”, says Salla Day. Stephen Crow Must Die is focused and cohesive album, more than anything the band has recorded before. It’s a band album, not just the sum of parts. As such, all the originals are credited to Day, Forsman, Heikkilä, Shade, Varis. This reflects the spontaneous approach to songwriting and recording for this album. “When we started writing songs, the situation was very open. Kind of what do you feel like playing?”, says Heikkilä.
Music writer Jean Ramsey says in the liner notes that this album is a rebirth for Them Bird Things. But I think rather than a phoenix rising from the flames, Stephen Crow Must Die is another consequence of the free-flowing nature of the band. In both genre and personnel. Another step, another left turn in their already decade-old career.
But who the fuck is Stephen Crow?
The secret is out in the open. Just take a close look at the credits, and use a Finnish-English dictionary, if needed.
Flow 2017 Day 2: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
A storm is coming. A storm will hit Helsinki hard. That was the weather forecast for Saturday night: a storm for the ages. Like clockwork, the storm hit at 7pm. After a extraordinarily hot day the heavens opened and lightning stroke over Suvilahti and extreme wind made the crowd ran for cover.
And it all lasted less than 10 minutes. Enough to cancel a few performances and close down the Balloon Stage. However, the chaos and the apocalyptic predictions will have to occur some other time. Hardly any more rain fell and the festival resume its program with normality.
Since the shows of Mikko Joensuu and Timo Lassy were cancelled, I decided to call it a day. Retreat and regroup for Sunday’s pack agenda.
It’s already a tradition to schedule a folk artist to open the Balloon Stage in the afternoon on Saturday. This year, Julie Byrne took such a slot. Just a singer and her voice, with her guitar and a bunch of songs. Byrne is a strong songwriter who whispers about common places and common moments of life using a very soft voice and sublet fingerpicking. Short glimpses of life, nothing like heavy storytellers like Sun Kill Moon or Mount Eerie. At Flow, Byrne’s performance had a charming nearness and tenderness, relaxed and light. A soft landing to the festival. On her music, I only missed a little bit of blues to give some edginess to the music.
As the store was approaching, the Red tent was hot and humid. Come think of it, that was the right atmosphere for Sparks. The band’s 14-song set was heavy on the most recent material, including four songs from their upcoming new album Hippopotamus, their first in eight years. Contrary to many legacy act, the newer songs were among the highlights of the show. Songs like the the opener What the Hell Is It This Time? and Missionary Position were fun and a good example of the Mael Brothers witty art-pop. The show ended with a couple of glam rock classics (This Town Ain’t Big For Both of Us and Amateur Hour) off their most popular album, Kimono My House. Visually, there was something terribly comforting in Sparks blue stripped sweaters. Plus, Ron Mael’s trademark tap dance, on the day of his 72nd birthday, was a stroke of pure genius.
Flow 2017 Day 1: You have no right to be depressed
The first day of Flow Festival 2017 treated festival goers with a beautiful sunny evening. Everybody loves sunshine, sang Roy Ayers. Instead of getting a much needed dose of vitamin D, I spent most of my time inside the pitch-dark Black tent, where the most rock and roll side of the program happened.
The first thing to notice about this year’s festival is the larger festival area, which places a new, bigger Balloon Stage in a whole new area. It’s almost like a festival within the festival. Not a bad thing, though. The whole festival grounds feel less crowded with more space around the main stage.
As every year, there will be voices complaining Flow is way too big and not hip enough, despite how the festival brands itself. I’ve attended Flow every year since 2010 and it’s always been a massive festival with a lot of hype around, but also with excellent, diverse lineups. With a declining live music scene in Finland, I’d rather celebrate an overrated Flow Festival than lament.
But back to the music. A very solid Flow day for me with the opportunity to see five outstanding shows with hardly any breaks.
This was the perfect example of a feel good show. Band and audience had a great time. Litku Klemetti is rising as a star with a very peculiar brand of Finnish rock. Blending pop, iskelmä with prog-rock elements and 1970s retro vibes, the show was a lot of fun with moments in which Klemetti shredded her six string like a guitar hero. A very enjoyable oddity for international ears.
Black metal x Flow Festival is a strange proposition. However, Oranssi Pazuzu are in a whole different level, well beyond the boundaries of the genre and combines metal with psychedelic rock, doom and kraut. Starting with Saturaatio, the show was loud and scary, a kick in the guts, yet a spectacular show. The stroke-provoking bass lines still resonate in my ears. The band transitioned between songs with mesmerizing psychedelic jams that silenced the whole tent. A trip into a violent, uneasy nightmare.
The mood was heavy after Oranssi Pazuzu, so the best choice was to seek lighter, happier sounds. Roy Ayers was the right man to put a smile back in my face. Besides sporting the coolest jacket, the 77 year old had an expression of pure happiness. And he knows how to transmit that happiness to the audience with his timeless groove. The songs were as simple as they can be: vocals > vibraphone solo > keyboard solo > bass and drums > back to vocals to end the song. Enough, though, to get people dancing.
Car Seat Headrest
It was the highlight of the night. I was really looking forward to seeing Will Toledo’s band and there was no disappointment here. Much more rocking than I expected: meat and potatoes rock and roll. The setlist, of course, included the best songs of Teens of Denial with a good alternation of rockers and soulful ballads, Even a cover of James Brown’s classic I Don’t Mind blended surprisingly well into the show. The band also played a new song, War is Coming (If You Want it), which will be coming out on Monday, Toledo announced. Car Seat Headrest has a bright future with a leader who looks like the 21st version of Buddy Holly and a guitar player is former FC Barcelona player Carles Puyol doppelgänger who plays in a Doom video game t-shirt.
The only disappointment was the small crowd the band attracted. Rock and roll is not selling tickets these days.
The Black Lips
I caught a couple of Lana del Rey songs, which sounded tamed and lamed. Maybe I just happened to see the slow part of the show. The place was packed, though. Back to the Black Tent, as the clock reached midnight, The Black Lips were ready to close the night with another rock and roll show. The band has become a slightly bizarre outfit, with a peculiar sense of fashion and a new drummer who is coming straight from the Fargo Season 2 set. The show was fun and sloppy, just like a garage rock ought to be. In the end, everybody was pogoing like crazy under a rain of toilet paper.
The death of the music festival. Long live Flow Festival
This summer I entertained the idea of only attending festivals with a lineup I didn’t like it. Just a festivals presenting bands and artists I don’t want to see. Why? There’s no time for music. Modern festivals have such an extensive program of activities that music becomes secondary.
Festivals are not concerts any more, but a destination and weekend-long experience. Not much different than a trip to a spa. You can choose to watch movies, play classic 1980s arcade games or enjoy art exhibitions and visual arts. What about yoga or running a 5k along fellow festival goers. Plus, let’s not forget the high-profile culinary offerings and top-notch cocktails and craft beers.
In addition to all those activities, there are concerts. Bands that play music in front of thousands of people. However, concerts are just a sideshow. Background music. Festivals represent well how the last decade cheapened music; even more so since the introduction of streaming services. At a festival, we experience music in a similar way as we consume Spotify: the playlist mode. We listen to a few songs, snap a pic or two, and quickly move on to the next show. Like it often happens when we listen to a playlist, it is very easy to skip to the next song, changing genres and music styles in seconds. The traditional one-hour festival show is way too long for our current attention spans, impaired by newsfeed and never-ending scrolling. Concerts are the background music for Instagram stories. It’s all one song, really.
Flow Festival is no different and its evolution has been towards this model. Pick up the official magazine and you’ll read not only about music, but art, design and food. You won’t find a complete list of artists. This is not what drives the ticket sales. It’s the Flow experience what does. Don’t care much about Ryan Adams or Frank Ocean, go and see Pulp Fiction at the pop-up cinema, instead.
This year, the Flow experience is enhanced with a bigger festival area and new activities. The festivals adds 1.5 hectares, but the daily capacity remains at 25,000. New Flow, old Flow. There are also changes to the configuration of the stages. The iconic balloon stage is doubling its number of seats to over 1,600. This is a much needed improvement as last year the Balloon Stage area was dangerously overcrowded to the point it was no fun to try to see a show there. The chill-out zone, the Backyard, has also been redesigned and will host yoga classes. Perhaps the best new idea is the We Jazz Vinyl Market. If you’d like to buy some vinyl records, a number of labels are setting shop next to the Balloon Stage. There, you can sit in Eero Aarnio’s classic furniture. Isn’t that cool?
That’s the 2017 Flow experience, but what about the music?
And then there’s the music
Despite all the noise, Flow continues to offer a leading music program of the highest quality. I can argue this year Flow presents one of its strongest lineups in recent years. Or at least, I find a high number of must-see shows. Characteristically of Flow, the program strikes a balance between genres -pop, rock electronica, jazz, folk, hip hip, and cleverly combines mainstream headliners with solid list of artist to be discovered.
Who’s the main headliner? Your choice is a good as mine. Frank Ocean is an audience favorite and the artist most requested, but the variety of the program gives you the opportunity to choose your own main act.
This year I’ve done my homework and I have figured out my schedule and made a list of artist to watch. I’ll have to endure a few hectic moments, running from stage to stage with no time to breath. The program packs too many artists in the prime evening hours. And of course, there are some painful overlaps as well. It’s so bad I’ll miss Black Motor, Jenny Hval and The Holy among others.
Anyways, below are my picks for Flow 2017. You may have others.
Friday night is punk night
This year’s opening night will be ear-splitting. In Finland, there’s not a proper rock and roll festival any more. The Horu Smoku Summer Boogaloo festival was wonderful, but didn’t happen this year. So, thanks Flow for not ignoring rock fanatics. In 2016 we saw Descendents and Iggy Pop, and this year we have the opportunity again of seeing great guitar oriented rock bands.
On Friday night, loud guitars will soar with the spaced-out this-is-how-your-worst-nightmare-sounds black metal of Oranssi Pazuzu, followed by the garage rock of Car Seat Headrest and The Black Lips.
Teens of Denial was one of my favorite albums last year, so I’m particularly thrilled to see how Car Seat Headrest presents these lo-fi songs on a big stage.
Re-energized after a line-up change, which now adds sax player, and with a solid brand new album, The Black Lips should throw an entertaining, danceable end-of-the-night party. Expect a bunch of songs that revisit 60s proto-punk.
Laid back Saturday night
On Saturday night, I’m missing a big headliner because I don’t really care about The XX, back at Flow’s main stage for the first time since 2010. Goldfrapp don’t do it for me either and the hardcore-meets-rap of Death Grips is a question mark. It could be a mind-blowing show or simply a headache. Therefore, my Saturday at Flow is looking like a relaxed evening of mellow and elegant sounds at the Balloon Stage. Just like grown-ups do.
In the late afternoon, Julie Byrne will be the first performer at the Balloon Stage. It’s the right setting and time for her warm and intimate songs of her latest album, Not Even Happiness. Let’s just hope the audience will be silent and quiet. Her songs need it.
Saxophonist Timo Lassy and his band can be considered the festival’s house band. Almost every year, Lassy has performed at Flow in different configurations, always making the audience dance with his groove. This time the band will welcome some very special guest including American singer Joyce Elaine Yuille and Finnish jazz-legend Eero Koivistoinen.
Last year Mikko Joensuu’s performance was one of the high points of the festival. The Nordic Music Prize nominee returns to Flow, but this time Joensuu is taking the Balloon Stage. The show is bringing closure to the Amen trilogy
All in Sunday
The third and last day of Flow Festival is packed with A-List performers. Coincidentally, the names of these artists carry the letter A: Astrid Swan, The Afghan Whigs, Ryan Adams and Angel Olsen.
Astrid Swan’s latest album, From the Bed and Beyond is brilliant and I can’t recommend it enough. While a festival tent can’t provide the intimacy the music deserves, you should not miss an opportunity to hear these songs live.
The last time I saw Ryan Adams was more than a decade ago at the Azkena Rock Festival in Spain. Without doubt, that was the worst show I’ve ever seen. Of course, there’s not much show when the singer, drunk as a skunk, barely sings or plays, making his band stop and start songs randomly. Luckily, Adams got it together and during the last decade he’s produced a solid body of work and some remarkable songs.
Over time The Afghan Whigs have become one of my favorite bands. Leader Greg Dulli has that rare talent of being able to write songs and perform straight to your soul. It’s that emotional. The band’s records combine rock and old school R&B to soundtrack the perfect crime.
Ghost World – You Made Me Smell Your Fingers
Last Friday I accidentally stumbled upon a free show at Teurastamo and it couldn’t have been a happier happening. I got to see Ghost World play a loud and fast rock show. This slacker rock quartet is a time capsule to the sound and the of 1992 college radio. Think Babes in Toyland meets Dinosaur Jr. at sunrise after a long night.
The band’s live set is a little bit raw and rough, even sloppy, but the songs are full of emotion and soul. Despite the loudness and the apparent anger, there’s plenty of room for softer pop melodies. It’s teenage wasteland with a smile.
Make no mistake, though. There’s no grunge nostalgia in Ghost World music. The band members are too young for that or even have lived the era. They are just a bunch of guys and a girl with nothing else to do but play loud guitars. And, it’s re-energizing.
Ghost World released their self-titled debut album last spring via Svart Records.
Them Bird Things – House of Stone
Them Bird Things are back! Electrified and reenergized.
This year Them Bird Things celebrate their tenth anniversary with the release of Stephen Crow Must Die, their fifth album. In the last decade, the band have produced five outstanding albums, first revisiting the songbook of sixties garage band Mike & The Ravens and then mastering their very own blend of folk, rock, country and psychedelia. Those albums were mostly acoustic, however, Them Bird Things were always a rock and roll band at heart. This was, it is only natural the band would release a loud, vibrant, dirty rock and roll album. That’s what Stephen Crow Must Die is. Guitar riffs, thundering beats and above all an excellent vocal work by singer Salla Day. Plus hooks, plenty of them. A bastard child between Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and The Pretty Things.
Stephen Crow Must Die will come out later in the summer, and today you can hear the fist single, ’House of Stone’. As expected, Them Bird Things can’t do things the easy way, and therefore invite you to experience their new music in the form of a 360 video.