Thoughts from the KXSU (102.1 FM) Promo Pile
Earlier in the month, I acquired a stack of nine promotional CDs sent to my radio station, and after sifting through them all, I am here to bring you my takes on the best and worst of my pile.
Fresh Pickles - Chris Castino & Chicken Wire Empire (2021)
Weekend at Matt’s - Black Crayon (2021)
American Lullaby - Dean Friedman (2021)
Born Liar - Gregg Hill (2021)
A Very Unusual Head - The Slambovian Circus of Dreams (2022)
The Boy Named If - Elvis Costello & The Imposters (2022)
Songs About Nothing Vol. II - Lulla (2021)
Storyteller, Pt. I - Walter Holland (2019)
Storyteller Pt. II - Walter Holland (2020)
‘What are we working with?’, you might ask. That’s a great question, and I’m still trying to figure that out myself. For the most part, none of these albums are quite like the other. They go from jamgrass to punk to traditional celtic folk, and every one of them has some unique quality. I think that this mix stems from me going into it rather blindly, choosing these from a huge pile at random based on whether I liked their covers or if their promo flyers sounded entertaining. I put very little thought into their selection otherwise.
Obviously, I was more drawn to some over the others, specifically Fresh Pickles, A Very Unusual Head, and American Lullaby. While the first two were chosen because I liked their covers, Dean Friedman’s American Lullaby was chosen because the combination of the promo flyer and the song titles sounded wildly unhinged and drew me in immediately. The flyer boasted some impressive superlatives for the album, from the New York Times describing American Lullaby as the “soundtrack of our lives!” to the London Theatre Guide stating that “every song is a classic!”. Notably, I was unable to trace either of those quotes back to any articles about Friedman, in fact, the only NYT articles that reference him are from 1977 and 1999. Either way, the album drew me in, but we will discuss that more a little later on.
Lastly, before I get into the nitty gritty of things, I would like to preface this by saying that I am not a music critic by trade. I am simply a very opinionated music lover with a very tedious album diary and occasionally more time on my hands than I know what to do with. So I suppose you can take this with a grain of salt and just note that all of the opinions in the following article are my own and do not necessarily represent the feelings of colleagues. I also believe that there’s something to be said about the validity of the numerical album rating system, given that everything in life and art ultimately boils down to personal preferences, but c’est la vie. Anyway, without further adieu, here are my thoughts from the promo pile.
Starting off strong-ish, here my picks for the best in the pile
American Lullaby (Rock - 2021)
Dean Friedman (45 min)
As I alluded to in my introduction, I was really expecting this album to be a bit of an unhinged joke but I was positively surprised and I honestly got a huge kick out of it. I’m not going to lie, I definitely clowned on the album cover and the promo flyer for being a bit on the absurd side, but in the end, I can’t hate on it for being exactly as advertised. The description of the album as being “in the spirit of Randy Newman” was spot on, give or take a little soft jazz. Similar to Newman, there was a great working balance between humor and poignancy, seen while comparing songs like ‘Welcome to Stupid Town’ and ‘I Wish You Joy’. Not one song on the album sounded like another, making it thoroughly unique all around. Friedman’s voice is nice and reminded me of John Linell of They Might Be Giants, the production was pretty well done, and there wasn’t a single song on the album that I wanted to begrudgingly skip. Listening to American Lullaby acted as a bit of a gateway for me into the rest of his rather expansive catalog. Most of all, Dean Friedman seems like a guy who would be fun to have a drink with. Great vibes all around, definitely recommend.
Favorite Songs: I Wish You Joy, Just Another Birthday Song, Halfway Normal World, Welcome to Stupid Town.
Fresh Pickles (Jamgrass - 2021)
Chris Castino & Chicken Wire Empire (47 min)
Fresh Pickles was the second CD that checked out in my pile because I loved the fun, bright cover. As a whole, the band was cohesive and if anything came out in their music, it was that you could pretty clearly tell that everyone making it was having a good time. While compositionally, the album sounds very on par with contemporary bluegrass and classic country, the lyrics are more along the lines of dad rock storytelling, which I wasn’t quite expecting but you won’t find me complaining about it. Obviously, not every single song on the album particularly stuck out to me and I wouldn’t consider it a no-skip album, however, any songs that I skip in the future wouldn’t be skipped because they’re not good by any means, they’re just not as good as some of the other songs.
Favorite Songs: Bound for the South, Rhode Island Red, Texas Fireball, Jackson County, Red Sky.
Weekend at Matt’s (Grunge/Garage Rock - 2021)
Black Crayon (22 min)
I vibed with this one a lot. The album definitely had a bit of an early 90s Sonic Youth/Beastie Boys flair. The song ‘No Point’ had a Kool Thing/Goo-esque bassline that gave the song a deeper, more mysterious feel. ‘Nate Interlude (Interlude) was reminiscent of the jazzy/funky feel of Ill Communication tracks such as ‘Sabrosa’, with ‘Bar Chords’ or ‘Demons’ filling the role of ‘Heart Attack Man.’ Overall, it was a pretty decent album and I’m interested in seeing more from them in the future.
Favorite Songs: No Point, Demons (No Point Reprise), First Jam (Outro), All of My Ladies are Historically Short.
Moving on to our middleweights. These albums I enjoyed, however, I wasn’t particularly running to explore them on a deeper level.
The Boy Named If (Rock - 2022)
Elvis Costello & The Imposters (52 min)
While I’m not about to pretend that I’m an Elvis Costello aficionado, I would say that I’m a pretty decent fan of his early work, which shaped my idea of what this album was going to be like. While it didn’t necessarily live up to my very specific idea of what this album was going to sound like, I wasn’t wholly disappointed by the album either. I definitely began to enjoy the album the further I got into it, with ‘The Death of Magic Thinking,’ ‘Mistook Me For a Friend,’ and ‘My Most Beautiful Mistake’ sounding the most like classic Costello. Overall, not a bad album but also not one that I’m in a hurry to explore further.
Favorite Songs: My Most Beautiful Mistake, The Death of Magic Thinking, Mistook Me For a Friend.
Born Liar (Country/Folk Rock - 2021)
Gregg Hill (39 min)
I really wish I could give this a higher score. Lyrically and instrumentally, there was a lot in this album to enjoy. The storytelling is engaging and the Hill’s band really holds their own. However, Hill’s vocals really fall flat. Despite clear emotional pull in the lyrics, Hill’s vocals felt distant and void of that emotion. Admittedly, some of the lyrics are very classic heartland rock in a pretty cliché way, but for the most part, the lyrics were pretty solid. Lastly, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the album’s instrumentals–they’re really what kept my interest in the album and their cohesion is really exemplified by the very lovely ‘Anyway,’ the lone instrumental piece on the album.
Favorite Songs: Anyway, Ring Around The Moon.
A Very Unusual Head (Rock - 2022)
The Slambovian Circus of Dreams (1hr 8 min)
Based on the cover, I really wasn’t expecting this album to be as boring as it turned out to be. The latter third of the album (songs 9-14) gets better, but it doesn’t make up for the first nine songs which all sound like dad rock covers of Klaatu songs. The album as a whole wasn’t terrible, it was just flat-out boring. I did really get a kick out of the title track ‘A Very Unusual Head,’ and there are some weird-ass lyrics in ‘Pluto’s Plight’ about sticking your hand up your anus which were pretty memorable. The homages to ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Dear Prudence’ in ‘Alligators’ and ‘Look Around’ did tie my Klaatu comparison together fairly well, which was pretty validating. Overall, the album just didn’t stand out to me in the way I hoped it would. Meh.
Favorite Songs: A Very Unusual Head, Absolutely Beautiful Freaking Day
Storyteller Pt. I (Traditional Celtic - 2019)
Walter Holland (48 min)
I’m sorry Walter, but I want the 50 minutes I spent on this back. I truly don’t believe that this is an objectively bad album, but it nearly put me to sleep and I’m not exactly sure that was its goal. Admittedly, I am almost positive that I am not the target demographic of this album and I’m sure that there is an audience out there that really enjoyed this. I am deeply confused about the “electronic sound” that the CD claims to have and I feel like I am missing something or that something is going over my head. I don’t have the brain power to invest another 45 minutes of my life to try and listen to Storyteller Pt. II. Sorry, Walter.
Last and most certainly least, is Songs About Nothing Vol. II by Colorado-based, Löded Diper wannabes Lulla. According to the album’s Bandcamp description, it “is offensive to: Your mom, Feminists, Catholics, The Pope, My landlord, Jack, Jack's friend, English people, Non-english people, American's, People from Texas, The jazz-funk connection bar, Drew Barrymore and Elizabeth Shue,” due to its lyrics sounding like they took inspiration from a 6th grade boy who just learned about curse words. Without further adieu, here is my unfiltered take, straight from my tediously kept music diary:
Songs About Nothing Vol. II (Punk? Douche-rock? - 2021)
Lulla (17 min)
The first two songs on this were actual ass, which is kind of ironic given that the first track is called ‘Luke’s Wifi Is Still Ass’. Let me assure you, Luke’s wifi isn’t the only thing that was ass about this album. These guys need to spend less time purposely trying to piss people off and more time making music that people might actually want to listen to. I know that this might seem crazy, but Lulla, I can assure you that it is 100% possible to make music that is both good and also pisses people off. It has most certainly been done before. Honestly, the only halfway decent song on the album was Sinners, so I’ll at least give them that.
All and all, while I certainly wish that I could get some of the time I spent on these albums back, I at least enjoyed a good portion of it. I’m not necessarily running to invest more time into these, but at least with the first few albums, I do recommend checking them out. While my subjective ratings are to be taken with a grain of salt, ultimately, I think that these sorts of rankings are important in order to save y’all the time and effort of having to go through the bullshit of listening to all these like I did. So do with this what you will, and go forth and listen to your heart’s content.