Thursday, April 23, 2009

Concert Review: Andrew Bird/Heartless Bastards

The Pageant, St. Louis, MO, 03/15/09

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It was an interesting study in musical contrasts at the Pageant Sunday night. Opening act Heartless Bastards specializes in something that can best be described as a thrillingly bastardized form of garage blues-rock. The band's music doesn't so much nudge listeners awake as grab them by the throats and thump them upside their heads. No points for subtlety here; lead vocalist Erika Wennerstrom substitutes soaring emotion and a booming voice in place of pitch-perfect delivery. The band's latest album The Mountain had all these qualities in spades, and showed some advances as the band occasionally opted for some folksiness with banjos and fiddles. All those seemingly endless comparisons to fellow Ohioans The Black Keys aside, Heartless Bastards is a damn good band in their own right, though Wennerstrom is the band's only constant member.

Headliner Andrew Bird's approach is markedly different. While his live show tends to be more free-form and unhinged than his albums, with an urgency to the songs that is largely absent from their studio counterparts, releases like The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Noble Beast are lyrically dense and musically layered, straddling that fine line between lyrical ambiguity and inaccessibility. His songs reveal themselves gradually over time; if Heartless Bastards' style is to jar listeners to attention via Wennerstrom's vocals and the band's onslaught, Bird often relies on understated melodies, loops, and all that damn whistling to make his point. Regarding what that point is - who the hell knows, with Bird himself admitting that he's not even sure what the songs mean.

Though the main similarities these two artists have in common are mostly limited to their record label - they're both currently part of the Fat Possum stable - the pairing made for a pretty solid, if disparate, few hours of music. Heartless Bastards took the stage at 8 pm sharp - it's a work night, folks - to polite but somewhat subdued applause from the capacity crowd. The band's plan of attack was direct and loud, with the Pageant's notoriously spotty sound quality (think of a thumping bass heard from the comfort of a toilet bowl) thankfully absent. With a heavy dose of songs from the new album, Heartless Bastards played tight and polished - perhaps a little too polished - with Wennerstrom pausing only briefly between songs to switch guitars or introduce the next number. The band nicely translated their love of volume to this live setting, with "Blue Day" grooving like a dusty blues track from a bygone era and "Sway" taking on murky, sinister undertones. Most songs were stretched out with lengthy instrumental jams that showed the band's garage rock roots, even if they've moved far beyond the claustrophobic quarters of the tiny Duck Room, where they played on their last stop in St. Louis. "The Mountain" benefited from a similar thrashing, with Wennerstrom's vocals complementing the band's racket and sounding like a cross between Lucinda Williams and Jim James (that's a compliment). An acoustic take of "So Quiet" offered a brief respite from the band's general clamor, before their set concluded with the ubiquitous big finish - dueling guitars full of fury and fire, manic drumming, and distorted faces of anguish from the band members. For the most part the usually chatty St. Louis crowd - nothing says sophistication like talking through an entire fucking concert, especially in the grips of a recession - was attentive, with the usual background hum of conversations little more than a hushed din.

If the band could be faulted for anything, it's that they were at times too precise and too exact to make any real connection with the audience. Part of this disconnect can be attributed to the Pageant's complete lack of aesthetics or atmosphere; despite being a mid-sized club, with its gigantic advertisers for the venue's corporate sponsors and non-existent décor, it's almost as cold and impersonal as any massive arena. Still, despite some dedicated head banging from a few of the pit's more manic members and St. Louis icon Beatle Bob shadowboxing with an invisible adversary, it was hard not to feel that the band's sound would be better suited to a sweaty, dingy, seedy basement concert room instead. While not revelatory, the band's set was strong and able to hold the attention of those ADD-addled concertgoers. Wennerstrom's voice in particular is an instrument in itself, brash without being bombastic and soulful without being overwrought.

After a relatively brief pause while the stage was stripped of all things Heartless Bastard, the pit warriors jockeyed for prime real estate (elbows up!), and one concertgoer regaled me with a story about how the often-truculent Jerry Lee Lewis several years ago called his friend "the spit in my mouth" before the verbal abuse really started, Andrew Bird opened the show solo, armed only with a violin, guitar, xylophone, and tons of loops. An opening instrumental that segued into "The Water Jet Cilice" - with the musician continuing his odd tradition of taking off his shoes - set the template for much of what followed, with Bird building the songs piece by piece by looping his instruments and alternating between violin and guitar. Backing band Martin Dosh, Mike Lewis and Jeremy Ylvisaker then joined for the main set, with songs like "Masterswarm," "Natural Disaster," "Effigy, "and "Souverian" performed more drawn out and atmospheric than they are on Noble Beast. Those who have seen Bird perform before are well aware of how he reworks his songs' textures and especially their vocal arrangements; it's this type of unique phrasing and near-improvisation that makes Bird such an engaging performer. Other songs were far less restrained, with a jagged version of "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left" accompanied by intense stage lights that made more than a few people - you guessed it - snap their heads to the left. "Fake Palindromes" was similarly twitchy and aggressive, a fitting closer to the main set before a too-short two-song encore.

While on paper Bird's songs lean toward the oblique, the distance that threatens to separate the performer from the audience is bridged by Bird's stage presence; it's simply too hard to look away. Part of Bird's sway over an audience stems from how these songs are literally built block by block on stage, along with a reserved and self-deprecating stage demeanor. His mannerisms are crafted without seeming overly choreographed or theatrical. Certainly part of this is the combined novelty of all those loops and all that whistling, but Bird often deviates from a song's structure, suggesting that his albums are merely blueprints that are more fully fleshed out in performance.

Of course some tightasses will mention that the show wasn't flawless; "Lull" had two false starts as Bird and Dosh couldn't get their loops to mesh, "Why?" took a while to get grounded and "Anonanimal" was a sludge of noise, but those are minor quibbles. And likely there are some fans clamoring for those pastoral days of 2003 when Bird played solo to a couple dozen people in the Duck Room and their primary reference point was that one of Bird's songs was actually a Galway Kinnell poem. As both a musician and performer Andrew Bird has far outgrown those boundaries. There are few musicians who have Bird's ability for lyrical and instrumental arrangements, and even fewer who can seamlessly reconstruct them in a live setting.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Alligators: Piggy & Cups

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Piggy & Cups is a deceptively simple indie pop album. While it certainly doesn't forge a bold new direction in musical genres, it doesn't pretend to either and incorporates influences without being overly derivative. Hailing from the Bremerton area of Seattle, the members of Alligators have been active locally in bands like Time To Fly, Map of June and Arper; if you say you've heard of any of them, you're either from Seattle or completely full of shit. The band's brand of music is primarily upbeat and shimmering, with careful harmonies mixed with arrangements that can sometimes insidiously get lodged in the listener's head. Though Piggy & Cups isn't a flawless album, it's got enough hooks and surprises to keep the listener's attention.

Nearly every band on the planet, from the shittiest garage-dwelling hacks to the most profound group hell bent on making a Big Statement, owes some sort of debt to the Beach Boys, and Alligators - Joshua Trembley, Bradley Pooler, Tyler Lewis, Daniel Lewis and Kristian Arper -
is no exception. To the band's credit they don't shy away from acknowledging this influence - it's right there on their press bio - and several songs benefit from Alligators' drawing from the band's pre-"Kokomo" heyday. The album's major charms lie in its intricate and studied harmonies. Opener "Where Does It Hide?" is perhaps the album's standout track, mixing - and here comes that dreaded phrase - jangly guitars, near-falsetto voices, and polished harmonies with synths and slightly distorted vocals. The vocal approach of "Mama, Stop" is eerily reminiscent of Brian Wilson and is augmented by more of those damn jangly guitars, hazy atmospherics and clean backing vocals. The lights are turned way down and the BIC lighters are raised high in the air on slow burners like "If You Want To" and "Three Fort Night," both of which blend simple guitar melodies with hushed vocals and understated background harmonies, offering a needed change of pace to the album's mostly balls-ahead approach.

Other songs suggest self-editing and restraint would have improved the final product. The vocal theatrics of a few songs sound like a slavish homage to Thom Yorke, particularly on "Original Fear" and "Snow Children," the latter of which could be a pretty decent outtake from OK Computer. Other songs are unceremoniously bludgeoned with overwrought, hair metal-shredding vocals that make Axl Rose's shrillest moments sound sedate by comparison. "Original Fear" is again a culprit, while "Why Aren't You Weeping (All In Your World)" cozies up with similar bombast. Were it not for these vocal histrionics, especially since much of the album is predicated on tight harmonies, both songs would fit in nicely with the album's stronger tracks.

Still Piggy & Cups is a satisfying album. Though its lyrics aren't exactly incidental - songs like "If You Want To" and "Way I" imply a sense of hope and commitment tempered with ruminations on mortality - the songs' harmonies and clever arrangements are the album's main selling points. There's plenty to like here, assuming listeners can look past the band's occasional vocal overindulgences.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Grand Duchy: Petit Fours

That big fucking shadow constantly trailing Frank Black is his Pixies legacy. As the bald-headed and shrieking frontman of that most fabled and celebrated of indie bands - bow, genuflect and offer a sacrifice in their honor - Black's post-Pixies efforts will likely always be weighed against that band's albums. Sure it's completely unfair and sets Black up for high expectations that are impossible to meet, but like other artists who have done their definitive work as part of a band before venturing out on a somewhat checkered solo career - Paul McCartney, Joe Strummer, Bob Mould, Ricky Martin - it goes with the territory.

Judged by any standards and setting legacies aside, Grand Duchy's Petits Fours is an entirely underwhelming and largely lifeless album. Trading under the Black Francis guise this time around, Francis is joined by his wife Violet Clark, guitars, drums and way too many synthesizers and various bleeps and blips. Points for experimentation simply aren't enough to save this album from being anything more than a curiosity piece at best.

Pixies fans who might be horrified to hear such a synth-heavy sound from Francis should abandon ship now. Indeed, nearly every song either starts with or features synths that sound ripped from the 1980s playbook; to the duo's credit, they do acknowledge that Clark is a fan of that decade's music. Still in this case that love translates into a pretty dull set of songs. Most songs adhere to the same basic pattern, with tracks like "Come On Over To My House," "Lovesick," and "Seeing Stars" all opening with synths that are eventually augmented (or put out of their misery) by guitars, drums and occasional keyboards. This pattern soon becomes both predictable and grating, with the album's scant nine songs and under 40-minute running time seeming much longer. On other songs this approach feels too tame, reserved, and precise; Clark's overly careful singing doesn't do "The Long Song" any favors, while Francis' patented screams on "Black Suit" aren't enough to offset the album's sheer repetitiveness. Less forgivable is the album's overall inaccessibility, with the listener left wondering whether the album is one big inside joke or Francis and Clark simply indulging their musical whims. Judging from the giggles on "Volcano!" or the too-clever humor of "Break the Angels," maybe it is. But we don't know, and the songs aren't interesting enough to make us want to find out.

This review shouldn't be construed as yet another reactionary Pixies fan wanting Francis to record Surfer Rosa Revisited. We can safely put those Pixies albums (not so fast, Trompe Le Monde) on the pedestal where they belong, periodically dust them off and go shit crazy for how great they really are, and them put them back. Taken at face value, without considering the history of the man whose name is associated with the album, Petits Fours sounds like little more than either a bizarre homage or pastiche to the glory days of 1980's synth, with guitars and drums thrown in almost as afterthoughts. Certainly Francis has created some excellent music in his post-Pixies career - I'm excluding those reunion shows that get belched out periodically of late - and it's always welcome to see a musician who's clearly not interested in reliving days of past glories. Yet that disregard for the past that served Francis well on standout album Teenager Of the Year and the underrated Honeycomb sinks Petits Fours. Perhaps best left to the completists out there, it's a bland album that, despite the best efforts of those involved, all too frequently sounds both overindulgent and inessential.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Elvis Costello and the Imposters - Universal Lending Pavilion, Denver, CO, 7/16/03

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I had a perfect view as Elvis Costello stormed off the stage, practically in mid-song. I also seem to recall him throwing down his guitar in either righteous frustration or rock star snit, but maybe that's just my memory messing with me. The crowd, living it up on a hot July night in Denver just a few moments before, became disconcertingly quiet. Even the Imposters - drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve, and bassist Davey Faragher - seemed momentarily stunned, leaving the stage as the house lights came on.

It was less than an hour into the show, and I began to feel like a bigger schmuck than Bruce Thomas. Having driven nearly 14 hours from St. Louis - including a lifetime spent driving across the hell on earth known as Kansas - it looked like another brutal trek across that depressing monotonous terrain was imminent. After several tense minutes of boos mixed with cheers mixed with more boos, Costello and the band returned and played one of the most aggressive, loud and supremely pissed off concerts I've ever seen.

Up to this point the show had been solid enough, with Costello and the band going through tight versions of then-recent songs like "I Hope You're Happy Now" and "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" as well as songs for the elders like "Radio Radio" and "Clubland." Yet after this brief delay the show devolved into a whole other beast. "Man Out Of Time" was played at triple speed, with an extended guitar workout during which Costello broke a guitar string but kept flailing away. "Less Than Zero" and "45" were given similar harsh treatments, with Costello and the band not even bothering to pause between songs. "Uncomplicated" featured that classic Costello snarl and was matched by the band's insistent playing; I still remember how Thomas' drums sounded like they were being played inside my skull. The Nick Lowe-penned closing song "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" brought everything to a raucous close; the Imposters have played that song repeatedly throughout this decade, but never has it sounded as raw and unhinged as it did this night.

Though the concert, and indeed the atmosphere in which it occurred, were far removed from Costello's late 1970s glory days, it remains one of the few shows I'd consider flawless. It was an exciting and unpredictable stomp through Costello's back catalog, with most songs played with a sense of purpose and conviction. Nearly every song sounded like it was being played live exactly the way it was meant to be played, making other versions (from that particular tour at least) seem polite and overly refined.

People go to concerts for a variety of reasons - the need to drink excessively and dance a moronic jig or two, a night away from those bastard kids at home, or as some sort of twisted fanboy obsession. But mostly it's because concertgoers want a night to remember; if transcendence is involved, so much the better. I'm still not sure why Costello stomped off the stage in Denver, and I don't really care. Regardless, what followed afterward was the best Costello and the Imposters concert I've seen - and I've seen enough of their shows to warrant psychological analysis - as well as the most thrilling concert I attended this decade.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bill Callahan: Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle has good stuff you know.

It's tempting to view Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle as just another entry in that long line of breakup albums, with Bill Callahan sorting through the wreckage of his split from pixie harpist Joanna Newsom. Amid all the horse/river/bird imagery that recurs throughout the album, its songs certainly serve up heavy doses of looking back, with a mixture of regret, disappointment and rueful bemusement. Leave that two-bit analysis to the armchair psychologists out there; such an approach sells this album far too short.

Whatever its inspirations, Sometimes I Wish is a remarkably understated and textured album. As an artist Callahan has never seemed particularly interested in confining his style. The primary consistency in Callahan's albums is his speak/sing baritone voice; like fellow Drag City cohort Will Oldham, all other elements are negotiable. In his Smog and solo guises Callahan has explored lo, lo-fi, folk and pop, though the crimes committed on Rain On Lens still aren't forgivable. Previous effort Woke On A Whaleheart was fairly optimistic and contented - or at least as optimistic and contented as Callahan gets - so it should come as no surprise that Sometimes I Wish is primarily pensive and rife with mournful undertones.

Sometimes I Wish is unassuming and unimposing, a near-perfect blend of guitars, keyboards, strings, percussion and occasional horns that Whaleheart merely hinted at. These are the type of songs where the listener can't help but listen to with just a little bit more attention; the songs' emotions and intentions unfold slowly and reveal themselves more fully with repeated listens. With its sparse guitars, weary strings, hushed percussion and half spoken/half sung vocals, opening track "Jim Cain" sets the template for most of what follows. Name checking the fiction writer best known for The Postman Always Rings Twice, Callahan offers a depiction of someone brooding over the past with an eye to the present, equal parts resignation - "I used to be darker/ Then I got lighter/ Then I got dark again" and disappointment - "Things didn't pan out as planned." "Eid Ma Clack Shaw" mines similar thematic territory, the song playing like a walk through the bleakness and dark comedy of someone's mind. Callahan lays on the equine imagery pretty thick, contrasting the song's somber image of someone haunted by a memory with a bouncy arrangement and humor, as the narrator's dream of his lyrical masterpiece is revealed to be little more than the nonsensical babble of the song's title. "Rococo Zephyr" is arranged beautifully, with acoustic guitar, keyboards, and strings used to devastating effect. Moments of joy are tempered and measured in the song; the woman who laid next to its narrator "like a branch from a tender willow tree" is presumably long gone, the narrator left with little more than a bittersweet moment of clarity: "I used to be sort of blind/ now I can sort of see."

Austin-based musician Brian Beattie provides string and horn arrangements that are as integral to the album's mood as Callahan's lyrics and vocals. Subtle strings and horns float throughout the gloom of "The Wind and The Dove," while "Too Many Birds," with its central image of a wandering and lost bird, features a string section that heightens the song's impact. "My Friend" and "All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast" up the album's intensity level via strings and guitars that stab through Callahan's growls, both songs building tension like a wave that crashes and then recedes slowly.

Still overall the album's vibe is one of disappointment, regret and restlessness. When Callahan sings that "it's time to put God away" in closing song "Faith/Void," it's hard not to view it as a summary of the conflicted emotions that preceded it, a sentiment of deep resignation or perhaps an optimistic acknowledgment that things haven't completely gone to shit. For an artist who has tended to jump genres with seemingly perverse glee, Sometimes I Wish is nearly flawless in its approach and execution.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Oh No Not Stereo: 003

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The press materials for the Los Angeles-based band Oh No Not Stereo note that the group's music has been featured on MTV shows like Paris Hilton's My New BFF, Bam's Unholy Union and Meet the Barkers, that their sophomore album 003 had production and mixing help from people who have worked with Live, Incubus and Fall Out Boy, and that their music would likely be favored by fans of groups like The All-American Rejects and Head Automatica.

A few songs into the album, it's difficult not to think that these biographical details were intended as warnings rather than praise. Simply put, the songs on 003 are blandly derivative and indistinguishable from that ever growing glut of punk-pop bands currently targeting the pre-pubescent and barely adolescent music market. The album's tracks play like by-rote assembly line pieces just looking for a little MTV or PlayStation love; indeed, it's not hard to imagine these songs playing as Bam Margera attempts another half-baked stunt or as background music blaring in the next Skate video game.

Yet the album lacks guts and, worst of all, even the faintest hint of heart, emotion or righteous outrage; the press materials' boasting of the band's DIY aesthetic is more like a punch line than anything of real substance. 003 sports some of the most incidental music that has come across these ears in a long time, with an endless shitstorm of predictably crunchy guitars, gigantic hooks, fatass bloated riffs and reedy vocals filled with whine. With a sameness of sound that courses through the album's 50-minute running time, songs like "Let's Get It Started," "Get Over It" and "Hurricanes" congeal together into a single blob. Being charitable, a few songs might work individually as either a single or as part of a compilation album (maybe Now That's What I Call Mediocre Music Vol. 1). "A World of Your Own" features strings - strings! - and briefly suggests that the band could break from the album's narrow confines. But as an album, the songs fail miserably, with far too much repetition and slavish adherence to pop tones that become dated as soon as they leave the listener's ears.

So what are the songs about? It really doesn't matter. The rage and angst expressed in the lyrics usually sounds both hollow and benignly nonthreatening, a clichéd collection of sanitized punk sentiments mostly reminiscent of tortured freshman college poetry. "Shot Down By the Man" is about (wait for it) being shot down by the man and that most hallowed act of defiance: "No one believes anything you say/ You're never right/ The only thing that's left to do/ That means anything at all/ Middle finger in the air." Other songs read like a checklist of stereotypical rock images: cars offer salvation, Friday nights are wild and unhinged, men boast with machismo, women break hearts and...hey! Wake up - the album's not over yet.

Maybe it's a generational gap my 1990s indie ears cannot bridge. Given the current popularity of bands similar to Oh No Not Stereo, it's easy to see plenty of suburban kiddies getting dropped off at concert venues by their parents to see the band live. But for anyone over the age of 16 the album will likely be vacuous and empty, a sort of fourth-generation punk-pop that will leave most listeners wanting to go back to the primary source material. 003 is an also-ran wreck of an album in a musical genre that largely places style over substance, and in which the only thing that differentiates one band from another is its name.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Revisit: Woody Guthrie - Dust Bowl Ballads

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look. go to for more.

In these depressingly shitty economic times, where executives pay themselves and their cronies massive bonuses and then solicit the government for grotesque sums of money for their failing companies, where the lowly workaday peons that make up the bulk of America's population see their home values plummet and employment status grow ever more precarious, Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads sounds as startlingly relevant as ever. Originally released in 1940 as the Great Depression had not yet ended - it would take a war to do that - Guthrie's concept album chronicles the hardships and injustices wrought by the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Guthrie's depictions of those most affected, those migrant workers who slowly shuffled west to a California spoken about in mystical tones and would be saddled with the derogatory "Okie," are sympathetic, humorous, sobering and, ultimately, defiant and optimistic. Its music is deceptively simple, featuring little more than Guthrie's voice set against strums of the machine that he claimed killed Fascists; for better or worse, the approach utilized here and throughout much of Guthrie's catalog still influences generations of earnest folksingers. Yet under this simplicity lies one of music's most coherent, focused and endearing concept albums.

Dust Bowl Ballads marked Guthrie's first commercial recording and, even when judged against his extensive recorded output, remains his finest effort. Recorded in just two separate sessions in 1940, it's since been released in various formats. RCA Victor Records, with the type of hatchet job insight that major labels still follow today, would eventually issue 11 of these songs, with "Dust Bowl Blues" and the key "Pretty Boy Floyd" excluded because of length. A mid 1960s LP version included these two omitted tracks and offered a new running order. The currently available CD version is likely the most complete view we'll get, containing yet again a different running order as well as an alternate version of "Talking Dust Bowl Blues."

Filled with allusions to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that would effectively shape Guthrie's worldview for much of his life, the album mixes a loose chronological narrative with the singer's experiences as he traveled around the country chronicling the effects of the Depression. Guthrie mythologizes these Dust Bowl refugees as he rails against the profiteers of migrants' labor. Certainly the common depiction of Guthrie as an intensely serious, humorless, firebrand proletariat folkie who dealt only in absolutes is at least partly attributable to Dust Bowl Ballads; it's clear who the heroes and villains are throughout the album. The album contains doses of bleakness and despair, with a righteous accusatory finger pointed at the grossly wealthy and their authoritarian abuses of power that often defined Guthrie's oeuvre. The central image of "The Great Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster)" is that of a family huddled in a shack as the children cry, the migrants' naïvely optimistic view of California as a "garden of Eden" is shattered amid the disillusionment of "Do Re Mi," and the dead man walking in "Dust Pneumonia Blues" isn't long for this world. The narrators of "Dust Bowl Blues" and "I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore" have suffered countless indignities; in the latter song the narrator describes his rootless existence and matter-of-factly mentions how he's been harassed by the cops, had his house taken from him by a rich man, and lost his wife in the dust storm. In these simple songs Guthrie paints a dark portrait of both the Dust Bowl and its affect on those hardest hit by it, as well as strictly adheres to the social awareness usually associated with folk music.

Still Dust Bowl Ballads is equally optimistic, a fact that was too frequently lost on all those earnest folksingers of the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps this is where Steinbeck's influence on Guthrie is most apparent; the folksinger mimicked Steinbeck's sympathetic and heartfelt depiction of the Joads' uniquely American character and set it to music. The album's despair is often tempered with both humor and defiance, with Guthrie's migrants displaying an internal strength and determination to not succumb to life's hardships. Sometimes this comfort comes from tales of near-mystical heroes; in "Pretty Boy Floyd," the bank robber is transformed from a petty criminal into a Robin Hood figure who gives his loot to the poor. Other times this optimism stems from a strong sense of self-identity and pride, especially in "Blowin' Down This Road" and "Dust Bowl Refugee," where Guthrie's subjects maintain dignity in the face of poverty, hunger and unemployment. Guthrie's characters are mentally strong, at times almost unbelievably so. The subject of "Dust Can't Kill Me," whose alternately had his baby and family die in the dust storm, landlord take his home and then destroy it over with a tractor, crops rot and furniture sold off at the local pawn shop, somehow boasts of his own invulnerability at sharing a similar fate. It's an uplifting snapshot of the will to live and the album's most singular moment of defiance (or, perhaps, hubris).

If Dust Bowl Ballads can be faulted for anything, it does, like much of Guthrie's catalog, offer few shades of gray in terms of heroes and villains. Its migrant masses are all heroic and its outlaws are simply misunderstood vigilante philanthropists, while cops and unscrupulous capitalists stand firmly with their feet on the necks of these masses. Seventy years after its first release, there's a poignancy to the album that still resonates with contemporary listeners. Given the album's minimal arrangements and Guthrie's often deadpan delivery, coupled with its stark cover of a dilapidated and abandoned shack and subject matter chronicling a dark chapter in this country's history, it's tempting to view the album as mournful and exceedingly dark. Yet the album breathes with determination and defiance, with Guthrie's characters rarely succumbing to their horrible lot in life. In times like these, Guthrie's wandering Okies and their troubles don't seem so remote or irrelevant.