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I tell you now: there are no epiphanies.

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Nice long review of From the Great American Songbook in Brainwashed:

* * * 

Written by Creaig Dunton   
Sunday, 01 June 2008
cover imageSurely having a higher concept than just to perform public domain songs that they wouldn’t have to pay royalties on, Tom Carter (Charalambides) and Christian Kiefer take a run through at some infamous and not so famous pieces of classic American folk that occasionally remain faithful directly to the mood and sound of the early 20th century, and at other times diverge wildly and brilliantly. 


The ensemble consists of Carter on electric guitar and Kiefer on acoustic/resonator guitar, often aided by Kiefer’s associates Scott Leftridge on bass and Ben Massarella on percussion.  The opening tracks of the album, “The Coo-Coo Bird” and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” tend to remain closer to what would normally be considered Americana folk, skeletal and fragmented with simple instrumentation.  The former especially channeled the same tonal vibe that I got from the first Dire Straits album (which is no insult, I’ve always loved that sparse simplicity and warmth of that album), while the latter’s slightly country twang is reminiscent of Earth’s recent work, but with a more classic sound and improvised, as opposed to conventional, percussion.

“Go Dig My Grave (Railroad Boy)” is the first that features vocals, which are processed and affected to give a more “authentic” sound, like the brittle wax cylinder recordings of field recorded Appalachian folk music that are still seeing release today.  That track makes for a notable dichotomy, because though the vocals are purposely treated to sound more dated, there is also a notably greater presence of studio processing and trickery on the actual instrumentations.

The duo’s take on the murder ballad “Pretty Polly” is one of the standout tracks here for its more drastic divergence from the formula that was established previously.  Clocking in at around 12 minutes, there is an odd balance of unconventional instrumentation added; both classic (a sawblade xylophone) and contemporaneous (an E-bow) that cast the piece in an entirely different light.  The vocals and overall instrumentation feel much more contemporary, rather than an historical look at music of the past.  Structurally, it does an excellent job of building all of the tension and darkness a murder ballad should have, culminating in a wonderfully chaotic passage near the end.

Perhaps the most drastic change from the original source material comes in the form of a unique take on “The Entertainer.”  It is a safe bet that even if people aren’t familiar with Scott Joplin’s 1902 ragtime classic by name, the piano melody that is synonymous with it will be undeniably familiar.  However, taken away from being the focus of the track, here it is instead supplanted by droning electric guitar noise and tense piano and drum duets. The ending of the track, which is completely unhinged and violent before segueing into the familiar piano melody, is one of the greatest moments in music I’ve heard this year.

From the Great American Songbook stays faithful to the classic source material that the songs are built upon yet expands and changes them to make it the work of Carter and Kiefer, and not a “covers” album or something as equally mundane.  Plus, I would be remiss for not commenting on the packaging, which is a lovely fold-out package with individual cards for each track in which various other artists comment on the tracks that were selected for inclusion here.

In Australia it is already tomorrow

I’ve been doing interviews with Australian radio stations all week for The Great American Songbook.  Pretty weird to think we live in a time where I can do a live, on-air interview via the phone for a radio station that is LITERALLY already in tomorrow.  Weird.

Of Great and Mortal Men

New Word Press site up for the upcoming/ongoing/killing me slowly Presidents project.  Find it here.

From the Great American Songbook

From the Great American SongbookYeow!  Last week’s mail revealed a nice big box from Australia filled to the brim with copies of my new collaboration with Tom Carter: From the Great American Songbook.  The packaging is just fantastic.  Here’s some stuff from the label’s website to whet your appetite for what it sounds like:

This second collaborative work from the pair is an expansive and ambitious recasting of American music now in the public domain. The influence of the songs collected here is long and widespread for their style and lyricism, forging a rich tradition and ever evolving history. With their interpretations, Carter and Kiefer have taken the songs that have seeped into their souls and extended upon them in such a way that brings something entirely new to their original ideas. It’s something that’s entirely theirs in spite of such source material, and with that, From The Great American Songbook brilliantly reveals a true hallmark of American music invention.

So, we have the infamous murder ballad Pretty Polly, the comic Camptown Races, the funeral Will The Circle Be Unbroken, the outlaw tale of Jesse James, the depression piece Hard Times Killin’ Floor Blues, the ragtime of The Entertainer and the doomed love trysts of Railroad Boy and The Coo Coo Bird. Carter and Kiefer have taken the spirit of these as a starting point for their spectral guitar improvisations, then fleshed them out with piano, percussion, bass and drums. In this thrillingly vast sonic terrain are moments of foreboding, tenderness, melancholy and gut-wrenching rawness.

Two of Kiefer’s longtime cohorts, Scott Leftridge and Chip Conrad played bass and drums respectively, while Califone’s Ben Massarella handled percussion.

Also contributing to From The Great American Songbook is a host of American musicians – including Tony Conrad, James Jackson Toth, Glenn Jones, and Sharron Krauss – with their reminiscences and insights into these songs with which they also found great personal resonance.

Christian Kiefer is a musician and songwriter with a varied and prolific history. His 2007 album Dogs & Donkeys featured the talents of Wilco’s Nils Cline, Low’s Alan and Mimi Sparhawk and The Band’s Garth Hudson. He is currently working on a project creating 43 songs for 43 American presidents and holds a PH.D in American Literature. Tom Carter is one half of Charalambides and similarly engages himself in many collaborations, including work with Thurston Moore, Bardo Pond and Robert Horton. From The Great American Songbook is his second release with Preservation, following on from 2007’s Monsters of Felt with Robert Horton.

Rise Up, Insomniacs!

Kevin Seconds' solo record

Kevin Seconds’ new solo record will be out soon and I’m all over it playing banjo, lap steel, even singin’ a bit here and there.  It’s a good record too. 

I’ll be playing some with the band, Ghetto Moments, this summer, particularly at the CD release show at the park downtown and slightly later at a big show with the Mother Hips, a band we all love.  Anyway, that’s how I roll.

Click here to go to Kevin’s site.

Silence will rise like smoke

Silene will rise like smoke

My friend Stefan Colombier in Germany runs a tiny tiny tiny label called Sadnoiss.  We’ve been talking for years now about my recording something for him–something weird and small and short.  For a while the label was called Dauerblumen and I was thinking of doing something about flowers for it–something instrumental perhaps.  But time kept slipping away.

In any case, Stefan got back in contact wit

h me some months ago.  I was midway through the re-recording and mixing of the Presidents project (out this summer) and had been reading too much about our Presidents.  I had been struck, in particular, with the story of Teddy’s son Kermit Roosevelt–a weirdly triumphant and nonetheless tragic tale.

In any case, Kermit’s story became the inspiration for an EP of experimental solo electric guitar pieces–the first such a project I’ve ever done.  I’m quite happy with it and it’s quite effective (at least to me).  We’ve just finalized the cover so I thought it was time to share.  This will be a very, very short run–a few hundred copies at the most–and so if you want one keep watching this space (or the Sadnoiss website) and I’ll keep you on the loop on where you can grab one.  I’ll likely put it out digitally once the physical copies dwindle so it’ll be out that way as well.  Not sure when any of this will happen.  Perhaps in the next month or so.

Check out the Sadnoiss page above too.  It’s in its infancy but they really take some serious time on their releases so they look fantastic.

Pretentious, Pseudo-Intellectual, and Banal

Awesome angry rant from someone on the Phoenix New Times website in response to a column on the worst band names at SXSW this year (including 43 Songs for 43 Presidents):

Terrance Becker says:

Your column is spot-on. Niki D’Andrea’s column is great and accurate!! 43 songs about 43 presidents was boring as hell and was the low point of this year’s SXSW! Spot on Nikki!! Christian Kiefer has an oeuvre that includes such pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, and banal works as an instrumental album about Russia’s Czar Nicholas and other CD’s that include some of the most pretentious song writing I’ve ever heard. This guy seems obsessed with acting superior to others, mentioning that he has a PhD and slamming the other bands at SXSW. I’m sorry I wasted my time, when I could have seen so many other great bands. The guests were much better than Kiefer, but it would have taken at least 43 guests to save this guys set! Nikki, you rock!!! By the way the band Kiefer kept slamming from the UK plays circles around him!!

Funny thing is that I think this guy is likely talking about some other set he saw.  We didn’t have any guests at SXSW and I don’t recall talking about any UK band, nor did I slam any other bands at SXSW.  It would be awesome anyway but now it’s extra awesome.

Chamber Music

Out now from Fire Records

This particular project was a long long long time coming.  I can’t even remember how long ago it was that I recorded my part of this, but I’m damn happy to be a part of it–and on vinyl too!  Check it out here and enjoy.


Just got word that I’ll be playing Twangfest at SXSW on Saturday at 2:30. Check out the line-up! Woo hoo!

Kevin Gordon
Chuck Prophet
Waco Brothers
Blue Mountain
Christian Kiefer
Steve Poltz
Whipsaws with Tim Easton
Jon Hardy and the Public
Sarah Borges


Tokyo-based guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama recorded with me a bunch last week.  He also did a show at Time Tested Books in Sacramento with a solo set by amazing local percussionist Kevin Corcoran.  At the end of the evening, we three played as a trio and our friend Brian Faulkner was kind enough to video and YouTube it.  Go team!


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