However, to those who actually live the “rock and roll lifestyle” as touring musicians, it is instead a life of grim grinding, pushing against indifference and various obstacles to make the gig, hit, the stage, and have your time in front of an audience. It is a life of endless striving and waiting, of constant risk and occasional reward, of being in the van and away from home, especially now that file sharing has removed the possibility of significant revenue from physical releases.
For Height to call his new album Rock and Roll is a challenge and a re-definition, a rapper in dialogue with the rockers. The lyrical content speaks volumes, an odd tension being created with the album title. No laser light shows here. This is a spare, contemplative record where Height continues to explore (with the help of his Friends) the minimal instrument-based boom-bap that he has made his own, the effect more Nick Drake Pink Moon than Cheap Trick Live at Budokan. Let’s poke around and see if we can catch up with the genre-bursting journey of Height with Friends.
Opening track “I Can’t Stand to Be Refused” is a resolute statement of purpose, the “let’s make hip hop out of our own instrumentation” approach pioneered by the group brought to full fruition. Height explains in rhyme that doing this rock and roll stuff is hard, the Friends a haunting chorus in the background. The PA breaks, the crowd can be indifferent, and the music he is selling does not have to be bought.
Since Height is resolute in his mission, this does not come off as whining or moaning. We continue with “Mustard Seed,” a walk in the deep dark woods, Height’s use of nature imagery reflects themes of death/rebirth. The tools in his sonic toolbox (spidery synth, skeletal guitar lines, just the right drumbeat) kept at a low simmer.
We hit rock bottom early, stuck on the side of the road with “Dead Motor”, Height articulating being in the muck and mud as a spare acoustic guitar loops in the background. Don’t let this one slip by. To tune into the anguish of this track can be palliative and revealing.
An Ed Schrader cover lightens things up a bit, “I Can’t Stop Eating Sugar” given a upbeat hip-hop thump. Still, the narrator’s conundrum is treated with a gravity that fits the general somberness of the record.
Things shift to more of a “grind and shine” attitude with “Hard Work,” the garage rock minimalism pushed forward by a bouncing backbeat. Sure, this rock and roll stuff is a tough row to hoe, but Height can get by on crumbs, right? We are going back to the younger days, the “Bible days” even, to draw the strength and inspiration to continue onward.
But, still, “Too Much Time” seems to indicate that the grind has its consequences. Sleep is hard to find, the night spent preoccupied by worry, trying to drift off while lying on a bed of nails. Perhaps the tea will help, the call and response of the Friends a refracting echo as the sharp pain of insomnia is chronicled.
The brief instrumental “Triumph Over Sadness” is a bit of the Friends coming to the forefront, the mastery of the backing tracks allowed to shine. We must remember, however, that all instruments on this record are played by Height, give or take cameos by high-profile scene luminaries like Andy Stack, Jenn Wasner, Drew Swinburne and recorder/mixer Mickey Free. And where would we be without Mickey and Frank Yaker? They manage to bring Height’s compositions to full pale bloom each and every time, not to mention the revolving vocal chorus of Gavin Riley, Jen Rice, King Rhythm and Emily Slaughter.
The last two tracks, “Oswego Speedway” and “Moscow” are more observational, the vibe being more contented and happy with the state of things than tired in the bones. A secret track speaks of ten thousand steps but does so with a buoyancy, as if looking towards the future with renewed optimism despite the passing of a wise elder.
It is not easy to be ahead of your time. Height does not seem to care about that, doing his thing his way, continuing to push forward, bloodied but unbowed. Based on his report from the front lines, the heart of Rock and Roll is still beating.
Height with Friends will be playing an album release show at Floristree on Friday, August 10th with Co La, AK Slaughter, Cakra Con (Katrina Ford of Celebration solo), Which Magic, and DJ Secret Weapon Dave in support. Doors will be at 9PM. Five dollar donation.