On Sunday February 23rd, WagonWheel Presents… welcomes critically acclaimed US troubadour Chris Mills back to The Greystones with his band The Distant Stars. Touring the UK in support of his first new album in 5 years, Alexandria is set to reel in the plaudits where previous record Living In The Aftermath left off. Joining Chris & the band will be Case Hardin who make their first visit to Sheffield since the release of 2013′s PM. Advance tickets priced at £9 are available from http://www.wegottickets.com/event/248301 and from The Greystones (12-6pm). Entry on the night will be £11. Doors open 7.30pm for an 8pm start.
***CHRIS MILLS & THE DISTANT STARS***
It’s been 17 years since Chris Mills released his first EP, “Chris Mills Plays And Sings.” That record’s plainspoken title laid out the disarmingly simple tone for his career; the development of his craft since then has resulted in sharper songwriting, more musical ornamentation, and tours with the likes of Andrew Bird and Califone. Now, with ALEXANDRIA, Mills has increased his band’s numbers (bass player Ryan Hembrey, pianist Christer Knutsen, and drummer Konrad Meissener) and geographic scope—the Brooklyn-based troubadour’s sixth studio album was largely conceived in Scandinavia, and recorded at Chicago’s Wall To Wall Studios. (Grammy-winning engineer Ryan Freeland mixed the album.) At once intensely personal and incredibly ambitious, ALEXANDRIA is a leap forward for Mills, yet it retains the wit and keen eye for human behavior that have defined his records up to this point.
The seeds for this record, Mills’s first since 2008′s LIVING IN THE AFTERMATH, were sown by his own maturing. “There was a lot of personal upheaval and renewal going on throughout the entire writing process,” Mills recalls. “I got married; I went through some rough times and pulled myself out of them. I began to refocus on how I thought about music and art, and playing and recording. This album looks backwards and forwards at the same time.”
As such, the characters populating Mills’s have weathered life’s storms, but are by no means swept away by their tumult; instead, they look for salvation in the world around them. The loneliness precisely described on “The Sweet Hereafter” is tempered by the knowledge that there’s “magic in the mountains,” while “Castaways”—a sea shanty turned rave-up—looks for redemption in the water.
“I spent a lot of time in Scandanavia when I was writing the songs and when Christer, Ryan and I were working on the demos, and I definitely feel like that informed some of the tracks. I feel like there’s a bit of desolation in a lot of the lyrics, and a sort of ‘no man’s land’ vibe, which reflects where we were at times in the Norwegian countryside. There’s a stillness at night when you get into the mountains over there, or above the Arctic Circle, and a little loneliness that I think crept into some of the songs.”
Mills’s newest collaborator, who hails from Norway, is also a part of his history—although he didn’t realize it until they met. One night in 2009, Mills and Hembry were out in a remote town three hours south of Oslo when they heard music coming from a bar. “The band was good,” Mills recalls, “though what struck me most was this lanky piano and lap steel player over in the corner. He was amazing!”
That player was Knutsen, who—in a stroke of luck—turned out to be a longtime fan of Mills’s music, and the ideal collaborator for a a record where Mills wanted to continue his musical development while remaining true to his roots. Mills, Hembry, and Knutsen collaborated across the Atlantic, sending demos back and forth and working on music together whenever they happened to be on the same soil. But the stop-start nature proved frustrating, and so Knutsen and Mills flew out to Chicago with Meissener, and laid down the record in a few days at Mills’s old haunt Wall To Wall Studios.
“Christer has a better handle on many of the things I’ve done than I do,” Mills notes. “And he was uncompromising in his efforts to make this record something that we could both be proud of. He knew when I was getting lazy and just doing something out of habit, or when I was missing something that was key in some of my earlier work. He also pushed me to try new things, but because he was so versed in the context of my other work, it always felt like progression or refinement.”
Take the buoyant “Helpless Bells,” which splits the difference between New Wave (darting synths underscore the jangling guitars) and New Americana and which is a particular testament to the way Knutsen helped deepen Mills’s sound. The harmonies are straight out of a barn-raising, yet the song is flung into the current pop moment by the subtle keyboards humming underneath.
“We’re both pop fiends, even though we both tend to write on the earthier end of the spectrum. He has an amazing ear for harmonies,” Mills recalls. “We also wanted to keep the few ‘rootsy’ tunes on the record from feeling too trad, so we added the harmonies and some space keyboards to keep things interesting and sort of otherworldly.”
ALEXANDRIA’s opening track “Wild Places” opens with Mills singing, simply, “I have wandered in the wild places/ and I’ve brought a message back for you”; that sentiment sets the tone for this expansive, exploratory album, which is full of heartfelt words set to indelible melodies.
“some kind of musical genius” – Americana UK
“Mills’ hidden elegance lies in the twist of lovesick metaphor, the wistful chord, the revisionist take on the slamming door.” – NME
Case Hardin take their name from the female lead in Boston Teran’s noir thriller ‘God Is A Bullet’. In the finest tradition of naming groups, it came about by virtue of being the book that band- leader and songwriter Pete Gow was reading when the call came through that they had secured their first gig; necessity was, once again, the mother of invention on that day.
‘You can’t call us Case Hardin’ came the derisory cry.. ‘it doesn’t mean anything and anyway, everyone will just spell it Harding’.. but he did.. and, to be fair, on occasion over the years, so did they.
But Case Hardin does have meaning – to toughen by experience – and over the years the band has toughened its core, toughened its sound and toughed it out through musicians who came and went, to stand a little bruised, battered in places, but tall, presiding over three self- released EPs and three stunning full length albums.
It seems Case Hardin is all about the story and the telling of that story. Gow’s writing now carries the weight of critical praise (‘aching lyrical genius’, ‘one of our foremost storytelling songwriters’) but in concert his songs also carry the power of a band continually in the service of those songs.
You will see Case Hardin in any manner of musical configuration – stripped back to a duo, augmented by regular contributors and pick- up musicians alike and all points in between.. each night the songs are different, they have to be… framed and pitched for the band, for the audience, for the mood, for the hell of it.. often all four.
No biography on Case Hardin can be considered legitimate without mention of those who served… Adam Kotz, Del Skinner, Paul ‘Billy Bob’ Thornton, Ian Cadge. Without whom etc, etc.
“a band that does subtle every bit as well as it does full-on, the results are mighty, mighty indeed” R2 Magazine
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