AJJ & Kimya Dawson
Rozwell Kid, Shellshag
For their sixth album, garbage-pop veterans AJJ chose to reinforce their strengths and leave any limp frivolities behind. They reconvened with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Xiu Xiu, Chelsea Wolfe), who oversaw 2014’s sonically expansive Christmas Island, but recorded and mixed the album in a mere nine days, having arranged most of the songs during tour sound checks and down-time in the van. This made for a confident stride into more elaborate arrangements and wider dynamics while staying just as dour. They also opted, amid some sensation, for the simplified band acronym (previously Andrew Jackson Jihad). Singer Sean Bonnette told The A.V. Club that, among many reasons, the change cleared a space for new imagery and allowed their music to define them, not their band name.
As a result, their new album, The Bible 2, is their most ambitious and assured collection of scuzzy punk screeds, employing even more production heft while sparing none of the vulnerability. The album’s mantra is placed right at the center: “No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread”. The Bible 2 finds the band choosing intimacy over isolation, gravity over the vacuum, the stage instead of the scene. The album is also an examination of boyhood from an adult distance, putting some of its tumult and pain to rest.
It’s also the most impressive work of Bonnette’s, who has honed his confessional lyrical prowess into a punk inflected mire of Trent Reznor’s unrestrained turmoil, Jamie Stewart’s profane gallows humor and a touch of David Berman’s surreal quotidian imagery.
Kimya Dawson is a Grammy winning, platinum selling singer songwriter most widely known for her work on the JUNO soundtrack and her former band, The Moldy Peaches. She has released 6 solo albums, including a children’s album “Alphabutt”. She has been featured in Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, NY Times, NME, Q, AOL, etc. She has performed live on the View, at the Independent Spirit Awards, TED/Boulder, was invited to perform on Sesame Street, and also performed at the REM Tribute at Carnegie Hall.
Kimya’s new solo album “Thunder Thighs” was self released October 18, 2011 on her own imprint Great Crap Factory. The album features guest performances from Aesop Rock, members of the Strokes, Mountain Goats, Forever Young Senior Citizen Rock and Roll Choir, Kimya’s 5 year old daughter Panda, and many more.
Fronted by the affable, spectacled Jordan Hudkins, Rozwell Kid write massive, gritty, excitable power-punk songs; they channel Blue Album guitar grandiosity and eternally-hummable melodies conveyed in ‘ooo”s, the likes of which would make Rivers Cuomo weak in his problematic knees. But when it came to writing Rozwell Kid’s new album, Precious Art, Jordan Hudkins found himself in the strange place of wondering who and what Rozwell Kid actually was. After more than two years on the road, the band – completed by guitarist Adam Meisterhans, bassist/vocalist Devin Donnelly and drummer Sean Hallock – hadn’t quite hit a dead end, but they needed to regroup, rethink and refind their identity.
All of those questions are thankfully answered by the twelve songs that make up Precious Art. It is a quintessential Rozwell Kid album and something entirely new at the same time. It’s teeming with understated nostalgia, but doesn’t get too lost in the past. Rather, it recalibrates the past, revisiting it with the added wisdom that comes with age. It’s quirky in the way that Rozwell Kid songs have always been quirky, but more than any other record the band has made, it sees Hudkins diving deep into the heart of human existence, telling universal truths based on his own personal memories and unexamined experiences.
“Nostalgia has always been part of my inspiration for songwriting,” admits Hudkins. “I’ve always seemed to pull from childhood memories and recontextualized them, where I kind of imagine it as a big 30 year-old kid wearing OshKosh B’Gosh overalls singing about these things they experienced or thought about as a kid.”
The result is an album that expands the strain of weird whimsy that’s always run through the band’s songs, but on which it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the more serious side of things. Nothing illustrates that more than the song “Booger.” Yes, it’s an amusing tale that revolves around the green stuff that comes out of your nose being smeared across the screen of your smartphone, but it’s also so much more than that – it’s a tender, touching and even tragic ode to lost love, that is filled with an audibly sad beauty.
“We’re pretty fun guys,” he says, “and I’m a huge fan of comedy and feeling good and happiness, but at the same time, that’s not the day-to-day default emotion for, well, pretty much everyone. So I try not to take things too seriously, but I also try to keep it rooted in some sort of reality. Yeah, it’s called “Booger” and that’s the central image, but at the same time I wanted it to also play as sincere because at the end of the day, it’s a love song.” Referencing something so uninhibited isn’t meant to be interpreted as creepy or misguided, though. It’s human and natural and reflexive; we just don’t talk about it.
Elsewhere, opener “Wendy’s Trash Can” is a fuzzy, feel-good power-punk song for the summer that sounds like it could be from 1977 as much as 2017, while “UHF On DVD” is a good-humored, high energy probe into anxiety and insecurity.
On crucial late cut, “Gameball,” Hudkins is literally out in left field, playing baseball, trying to do well and meet expectations while watching others score and succeed; “I’m just being myself out here, I don’t even know where to run,” he pleads in the chorus. It’s as good an explanation of him as we could ask for. It’s on “Michael Keaton,” however, that Rozwell Kid finds a moment all its own. The near 5-minute album closer is a quirky take on hero worship that simultaneously and expertly reveals the incredible depths of the human condition. Here and all over Precious Art, Hudkins communicates in his own special language to relay the same emotions most songwriters do; excitement, disappointment, heartbreak, love, self-doubt, and more.
This album also marks a new frontier in how the four members were able to write songs; having ample time in the studio allowed the band to be more experimental, and to collaborate in an entirely new way. But it’s remarkability is as much because of Hudkins’ insane ability to balance pathos and humor to turn the slightest, most oddball detail – whether that’s picking his nose, making Batman costumes or liking hummus – into works of, well, precious art. Not, of course, that that title is entirely sincere…
“I think it’s hilarious for a rock’n’roll band to call anything they do Precious Art,” laughs Hudkins. “I think it’s really funny. But at the same time, these songs are my little babies – they’re my little precious art. That sounds so terrible! Maybe don’t put that in the bio!”
Any musician you talk to that is familiar with Shellshag regularly uses one word to describe these DIY stalwarts: Inspiring. Over the years, the duo has grown into Brooklyn’s answer to Dead Moon, transcending the simple label of “a band” and becoming an institution in their own right. They are true out-and-out lifers, in it for the long haul, and a reminder that perseverance is key in any artistic endeavor. While many of their fans were too young to have even heard about “punk” in the mid-‘90s, Jen Shagawat was already running the infamous Starcleaner Warehouse in San Francisco, an integral part of the city’s independent music scene, and playing in a number of Bay Area bands. In the meantime, John “Shellhead” Driver was touring throughout the country with his band 50 Million and penning songs for his stripped down acoustic project, some of which would later be re-worked as Shellshag staples and crowd favorites. After meeting in the Mission in the late ‘90s, romance ensued, as did their music together, and the two have never parted. With each LP and every tour that has taken them across the US and back again, Shellshag have proven that they cannot only survive in a changing music industry, ethics intact, but can thrive as underground musicians without compromise.