Gold StarUnlike so many L.A. musicians, Gold Star's Marlon Rabenreither actually grew up in L.A., inoculated from infancy against everything they tell the tourists about Hollywood: "You see through it all," he smiles. Instead, he writes like the star of his own high-concept noir, a man pursuing the truth toward places in the city -- and in himself -- where few care or dare to go. On Big Blue, he matches an unsparing sense of punk-verite -- think X's Los Angeles or More Fun In The New World -- to Neil Young's dark-was-the-night guitar desolation and Leonard Cohen's deep and resonant detail for an album that feels like a much-loved cult movie and reveals itself as a fearlessly heartbroke-but-honest autobiography. Like he says on the first track: "Whoever you are / come with me."He's been building Big Blue for years -- well, actually, he's been dismantling everything standing in the way of Big Blue for years, teaching himself to fight distraction and self-doubt. At first he was scared, hiding his voice and guitar behind waves of reverb and echo -- "That's how you deal with putting yourself on the line," he explains -- but he was steeling himself to really be himself. On his previous album as Gold Star, 2015's Dark Days, he cut through the camouflage, and on Big Blue, he peels it all away. Now it's a meticulous and unsparing L.A. album about leaving and loving and living in a place that never quite gets its say, with songs and stories from the backalleys and surface streets where the weight of decades -- Depression L.A., wartime L.A., rock 'n' roll L.A., pop art L.A., punk L.A. and more -- presses against you as soon as you step out of your car.
Big Blue is named after Rabenreither's grand old shipwreck of a Hollywood Craftsman built in 1909 that somehow still survives -- a California cousin of the Band's Big Pink. The freeway cuts through what was once the backyard, stray chickens strut across the street and loose cats curl up on cars in the driveway to get warm after it rains. He'd found in the house a center of gravity -- maybe a sympathetic character -- that could gather his experiences into stories, and make his stories into songs. He'd watch and write constantly, he says: "It's like setting a dinner table," he explains. "You want to be ready when the guests show up -- when you have an idea! If you're not writing ritually and habitually, you'll be unprepared."
Last October, he was ready. He'd tacked up blankets at strategic sonic points in his cavernous wood-beamed living room, recruited old friends to back his songs and rented the best musical equipment he could get -- but it had to go back in three days. That meant no going back on the sessions, not when the homebuilt recording set up meant vocals and the drums and the sound of the room itself were all dissolving into each other on the takes: "You either have it or you don't," he says. "But when the music is simple, that works."So no autotune, no orchestral overdubs, no easy clichés or repeated tweaks that squeeze the life out, of course. He produced it himself, so he cut every song as close to its core as he could. Like Fante and Bukowski -- L.A. writers he admires, and whose neighborhoods he knows well -- he stripped out everything but what he meant. If he was scared of the truth in the true story he was telling, he knew he was telling it right: "Anything you see truly is universal in way," he says. "And anything honest is, in a way, real for everyone."That's Leonard Cohen, of course -- Dylan, too, of course -- but also writers like Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler, whose L.A. dramas were so detailed you can still visit the intersections and office buildings he wrote about. And that's Big Blue, as Rabenreither goes to a house in the canyons and meets someone with a knife strapped to their knee, or takes a trip to London and spends the night with his not-quite-lover in a cemetery, or watches a woman watching him as his train leaves her behind forever. On "Sonny's Blues," a nod to James Baldwin's immortal short story, Rabenreither fights to find the right kind of light in a sweet-but-sad piece of country soul, and on "It Ain't Easy," he introduces the Band to Lou Reed for a song about waiting for a man with something you truly can't live without.
Across Big Blue are flashes of Elliott Smith, or of Wilco's most intimate moments (with maybe a wink at their Sky Blue Sky on Gold Star's "Blue Sky To Blue Sky") or pedal steel from the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo or the dreamstate guitar of Mazzy Star's David Roback, too; if this album is one long night drive, which it sometimes feels like, then those are the stars that light up Big Blue's Hollywood. And on final song "The Strangler," a wounded Dylan-style dirge about how it's hard to leave and maybe harder to be left, that ride and that story both end like every good noir must, with a quick fade to black and a final line that echoes on even when the music stops: "It wasn't til last night / It finally it happened to me," sings Rabenreither. "It finally caught up to me."Korey Dane?
Korey Dane grew up in Long Beach, California, as a skateboarder kid with a gearhead father and an English teacher mother and with a guitar he learned to love as he learned to play, letting a few inherited books and a handful of records lead him away from home and into the great American unknown. That’s where he found his last album Youngblood, born from months exploring and hitchhiking and putting songs together piece by piece, then presented as promise and potential to veteran producer and A&R man Tony Berg (X, Public Image Ltd.). He set up in Berg’s Zeitgeist Studios and with a crew of top-notch sessioneers—just like they used to do with the Wrecking Crew during L.A.’s golden age—he hammered Youngblood into something real, releasing it with Innovative Leisure in the fall of 2015.
Then smash-cut to September of 2016, with Dane coming off tour, a relationship about to crack in a half, and his 27th birthday about to hit, just like he’d predicted—unwittingly—in his song “Hard Times.” (The day before he started recording, he’d had a fortune teller tell him hard times were coming, but that was a waste of money—he already knew that.) He was left standing at the leading edge of his new album with... well, nothing ...but his songs and a beautiful room where he could record them. Oh, and 96 hours to get it all done.
So he got it done: he tapped a few close friends to back him and cut Chamber Girls almost completely live, searing instinct and experience direct to tape at L.A.’s analog time capsule Valentine Recording Studios. He produced everything himself, too, except for a quick assist from Berg on one a song, inspired by the deceptively simple ethos he’d internalized while making Youngblood: pursue greatness. “Writing a song that you know someone might skip over later is sacrilege,” he says. Instead, he wanted every song on Chamber Girls to feel not only live but alive, too, with that go-for-broke spirit that animates everything he says, does, or sings: “I’m writing all the time,” he says. “I’ve lived by a line a day sometimes. I try and stop when it’s good. If you try and simplify it down to its bare elements … it’s truly a redemptive act.”
That’s why he calls Chamber Girls—despite those hard times, or because of them—a celebration. “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll record”, he says. It’s got a lot in it, and “it talks about important shit,” he adds. And it does—it’s poetry at velocity, a trick that goes all the way back to Dylan and the Hawks. Opener “Half Asleep” is a Westerberg-style wake-up call (“Five, four, three, two, one, gone / I'm a cloud of smoke”) and from there it’s an album made from ash and fire, with a burner like “Hard Times” (and its swaggering Big Star guitar) only steps away from the smoky but stark “Always.” “Down In The Hole” is like Tom Waits back alley cabaret by Leonard Cohen’s deathless ladies’ man. Closer “Steady Forever” is a streak of light like the hungry young Springsteen, with lyrics hiding literature and a line that catches the spirit of the whole album: “Such a strange bell we’ve been ringing / Like rock n roll on a church organ.”You can feel it everywhere on the album and you can see it on the album cover too, with the sunlight, the shadow, the eyes closed and the hand reaching out—it’s somewhere between an awakening, a resurrection and a last goodbye all at once, shot at that special half-there time of day that could be sunrise as easily as sunset. It’s a moment when possibility is endless, and when the past and the future and the hard times and good times find a perfect instant of sublime balance. Chamber Girls started as an ode to those who stay at home, Dane says, but you know how it goes: you can’t love your home if you don’t ever leave your home, and part of Chamber Girls is that mythic trip between the unknown and the known. In that very first second before he started this album, Dane was standing in the wreckage of everything he’d had planned for so long—but then he stepped through that studio door and made the record anyway. And in a way, Chamber Girls is the story of that step.