Friday, July 18, 2014

Sassparilla releases two records with very different approaches

Sassparilla, led by songwriter and front man Kevin Blackwell, delivers Pasajero and Hullabaloo (Fluff & Gravy Records), a 19-track, double-disc set of two divergent, but distinctly Sassparilla albums.


The two albums, totaling 19 songs, move in polar directions; Pasajero more akin to the band’s latest two records (2012’s The Darndest Thing and 2013’s Magpie), boasts tight studio production and a melodic focus, while the ten tracks of Hullabaloo capture the live essence and playful nature of the band. 


His reasoning for making two different records, yet packaging them together is simple; to provide fans two distinct experiences: A studio record, and a “come as you are” record.


“I’ve always maintained that bands wear two hats, the live show and the recorded product.  With our last two releases, we made studio records.  Songs that could be performed live, but with a different energy or spin on them,” explains Blackwell.  “The recorded product was something I saw as a different entity.  With those albums I wanted a recording folks could listen to over and over again and find things they hadn’t heard the first couple of times.”


Which is what he accomplished with The Darndest Thing and Magpie. Recorded and produced by Eels’ guitarist Chet Lyster, this tradition continues with Pasajero.  


With Hullabaloo, the band went in the opposite direction, choosing to leave behind a proper studio for Blackwell’s attic, leaving in the flaws and raw energy of the moment and offering fans the live show “experience” they’ve asked for.  On The Darndest Thing and Magpie, the band left behind the washtub bass fans have come to love at the live shows. On Hullabaloo the band brings it back front and center.  “The washtub provides a unique and fantastic tone that no other instrument can replicate.  It has a voice.  An argument.  A proper upright bass is one of the sexiest instruments there is, the tub bass is sexy too, but it brings handcuffs with it.  I think the washtub is the defining sound on Hullabaloo.” 


In addition to the resurrection of the tub bass, on Hullabaloo, “There aren’t multiple takes, there aren’t overdubs,” says Blackwell.  “It’s us with our pants down.  It was recorded mostly in my attic between diaper changes and arguments; a couple borrowed mics, a borrowed compressor, and the simplistic genius of Apple’s Logic.  I named the records separately because they are in fact different entities.  On Pasajero I enlisted the talent of a lot of our friends in addition to Sassparilla to augment the sound or achieve what I was going for.  Hullabaloo is only the five members of Sassparilla.”


“Folks are always saying we should make a ‘live’ record ‘cause they enjoy themselves at our shows.  I’m fairly convinced they wouldn’t feel the same way about a recording of that show.  The live energy can never really be captured on a recording.  Songs are inevitably played a little too fast, the vocals are a little rushed or pitchy ‘cause you are jumping around.  Those things can pass at a show, I’m not so sure on record,” states Blackwell.  “We aren’t that kind of band.  We are kinetic.  We aren’t staring at a spot on the back wall and focusing on perfection while playing live.  We are attempting to make an organic experience that isn’t necessarily concerned with musical perfection.  However, on record, I am concerned with that.  I want it to be as nearly perfect as our abilities allow.”


The two albums showcase the breadth of the Sassparilla experience: one moment beautiful, the other falling down the stairs.


“The difference with this release from our past albums,” Blackwell says, “is that Pasajero and Hullabaloo contain a bit of everything, whereas some of our other albums only had one of these elements to them.”



Recorded and produced in Portland by Chet Lyster at his studio, Blackwell wrote Pasajero with the intent of putting the feel of a pulp novel to music.  Pasajero tells a story.  Though Blackwell says, “I don’t really want to say what the story is about, because I prefer folks to make their own interpretations.  I wrote more metaphorically on this record than I have in the past for that very reason.  I didn’t want to force-feed the plot to people.  I wanted them to make up their own story based on their interpretation of the metaphor.”

Pasajero starts with “Overture,” a saxophone-driven, beat-infused burn with a late-night, blurry-eyed Kerouac sprawl to it.  Proclaiming, “If it doesn’t burn, it was never alive.”  Blackwell’s southern gothic oration and the band’s infectious groove set the stage for the rest of this dark, yet melodic collection.  

“Dark Star,” the album’s second cut, tips its hat to early Floyd with swirling slide guitars, minor-key tonality, and the hypnotic sensibility the band has become associated with both live and in the studio.

“Cool Thing,” a blues-infused sedative, finds the band using only guitar and light percussion to a Kimbrough-influenced guitar groove.

“What The Devil Don’t Know” and “The One That Got Away” place the listener squarely in Kerouac’s shirt pocket, with hypnotic upright bass, beat lyricism, and producer Chet Lyster’s brilliant use of space and less-is-more production mentality.

“Peaches” is the album’s defining rocker, a Doors-inspired cut drenched in keyboards and swirling heavy grooves, while “When You’re The Devil” follows up on that vibe, and offers up another equally engaging, rocking number.

The album ends with “Radio Child,” a laid-back, acoustic pop-folk number that winds down Pasajero majestically.


Hullabaloo opens with “Through The Fence,” a traditional blues number – just Blackwell and an early model parlour Stella – that tips its hat to greats like Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.

“Cocaine,” a show favorite, finds Sassparilla as only a live audience can, loose, ragged, amped-up and hooky as ever.

“It Ain’t Easy” and “Why You Making It Hard” are two more numbers that show the band’s ability to play raucous numbers, while still incorporating sharp melodies and hooks, all the while leaning on their punk-roots. Blackwell says, “’It Ain’t Easy’ is gonna upset some folks.  I apologize in advance.  But I want to set the record straight.  This is NOT an anti-God song, far from it.  I am a very reverent and spiritual person.  What it IS, is an imagining of the life of God.  I was raised from a young age being told God sees all.  I took that sentiment literally in this song.  Imagine being forced to watch all of your friends do unmentionable and nasty things all day.  Interspersed with a little bit of good of course.  Sounds like hell.”

The final song of Hullabaloo, “The Hoot Song,” features Blackwell’s two-and-a-half year old twin boys.

“The last track on the album is just me, my guitar and the twins,” says Blackwell.  “By far the most important track on the record to me.  Folks may say gratuitous, but I say…whatever.  How many folks can say they have a song they wrote with their two-and-a-half year old sons?”

Explaining the songwriting process with the twins, Blackwell says he asked them what they wanted the song to be about, and they replied, “Trains!”  And then Blackwell would ask them, “What else?”  From their candid responses Blackwell stitched together the tune.

“The hoot is their calling for each other,” he says.  “Whenever they are looking for each other, they hoot.  When they are happy, they hoot.  When they wake up, they hoot.  It’s become a panacea for me as well.  I find whenever I’m stressed, tired, angry…a good hoot gets me back in line. Kids, so much more wise than we are.”

While they may be two completely different records, they compliment each other implicitly, showcasing a band that knows how to use both the studio and the moment to deliver a distinctly original Americana/roots experience.