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Soundbites: Billy Sharff's Excellent New Album

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W. Kamau Bell - COURTESY OF W. KAMAU BELL
  • Courtesy Of W. Kamau Bell
  • W. Kamau Bell

It seems like it's been ages since last we heard from Upper Valley Americana outfit Pariah Beat. In part that's because, well, it has been ages. 2012, by my count.

Though the band's Facebook page has shown some sporadic signs of life recently, its website hasn't been updated since that year. PB did release a new record, New Depression, at some point in the last two years. You can download it by donation via said dormant website. And I recommend you do. It's a pretty raucous little slice of honky-tonk and rockabilly. But otherwise, the band has been awfully quiet of late. And that's too bad. Theirs is a uniquely rambunctious take on twang that's a lot of fun on record as well as onstage. Find out for yourself when they swing by Charlie O's World Famous in Montpelier for a rare gig this Saturday, December 6.

Fortunately, Pariah Beat cofounder Billy Sharff has kept busy in the meantime. He recently released a new solo recording through his Bandcamp page, This Side of Town, which you really should hear. In my estimation, it's one of the best local singer-songwriter records of 2014.

(Point of order: Sharff technically lives just over the state line in New Hampshire. But since he gigs regularly in the Green Mountains and Pariah Beat are a Vermont band, we're claiming him as local. Suck it, Granite State.)

Sharff's latest solo album is a stark, low-key affair: just a man and his weathered guitar and equally weathered voice. And it's beautiful. But don't just take my word for it. The online music mag PopMatters recently reviewed it and came to the same conclusion. Wrote critic Ed Whitelock, the record "introduces a singer-songwriter in the vein of John Prine or the late fellow New Hampshire artist Bill Morrissey." Whitelock goes on to say that Sharff's stories of lost love and restless rambling are "engaging and familiar, like the wintry neighborhood street photo featured on the album cover."

COURTESY OF BILLY SHARFF
  • Courtesy Of Billy Sharff

Agreed on all counts. Sharff shares Prine's sensibility and, on occasion, his vocal timbre. And as with that great songwriter, Sharff's worldview is slightly askew. Even when he's lamenting a lost love, as on "Like a Drug," which equates getting over a relationship to withdrawal, his words still have an amiable, relatable quality. It's sad, sure. But it's also comforting.

Sharff's latest reminds me in many ways of Joe Pug's 2009 debut EP Nation of Heat. Both records are spare and plainspoken, able to evoke depths of emotion with little more than a raspy turn of phrase and a simple guitar strum. For a more current comparison, check out another Joe, Joe Purdy, and his 2014 album Eagle Rock Fire, a similarly sparse, unfettered work that's on my short list of the year's best records.

In a recent email, Sharff writes that a new Pariah Beat record is in the works, but he doesn't say when that album might come out. He says the band is, "enjoying the golden years. Taking it easy, but taking it just the same." Translation: We'll release it when we release it.

In the meantime, fans would do well to dig into This Side of Town, especially as many of our neighborhood streets begins to resemble the one on Sharff's album cover. It's a great winter record.

BiteTorrent

Comedy fans, take note. Actually, everybody with a working intellect, take note. Comedian W. Kamau Bell will perform at Club Metronome this Thursday, December 4. If you're unfamiliar with him, Bell is among the most provocative and outspoken comics on the planet, especially when it comes to sociopolitical issues. He's been a guest on shows and podcasts such as "Real Time With Bill Maher," "Conan," "The View," "Fresh Air With Terry Gross" and "WTF with Marc Maron," to name a few. The New Yorker wrote of his sadly short-lived FX show "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell," "Bell's gimmick is intersectional progressivism: he treats racial, gay and women's issues as inseparable." Yup. Bell was also recently named an Ambassador of Racial Justice by the ACLU. So there's that.

We'll have an interview with Bell on our arts blog Live Culture prior to his Metronome show. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read his recent online piece for Vanity Fair, "On Being a Black Male, Six Feet Four Inches Tall, in America in 2014." As a white male, five feet eight inches tall, it personally gave me a lot to think about and puts into sharp contrast just how different our day-to-day lives in these United States really are.

In lighter news, the holiday season is officially upon us. You know what that means, right? Well, yes, obscene displays of consumerism, awkward company parties, forced prolonged exposure to family and bad sweaters. But also, holiday rock shows!

Miss Fits - COURTESY OF MISS FITS
  • Courtesy Of Miss Fits
  • Miss Fits

I'm (mostly) kidding about the negative side of the holidays. I actually love this time of year, in no small part because holiday shows are almost always a blast. And I'm betting that a holiday fête hosted by the Green Mountain Derby Dames won't disappoint. Find out when the Dames roll into the Monkey House in Winooski this Saturday, December 6, to deck the halls — and likely, each other — with local rockers Dr. Green, Lake Milk and all-girl Misfits tribute band Miss Fits. The show, dubbed Jingle Balls Rock, is a benefit for GMDD.

In other benny news, Get Down, Give Back, a new organization founded by local electronic producer Eric Hopwood — aka Korbin Music — debuts the first in a series of benefit dance parties at ArtsRiot in Burlington this Thursday, December 4. The party will feature DJ Johnny Utah, DJVU with Ryan Denno, Korbin Music and local hip-hop heroes the Lynguistic Civilians. There will also be a silent auction with donated prizes from a slew of cool local businesses. All proceeds will go to local homeless shelters.

Last but not least, my favorite gimmick of the week comes courtesy of the folks at Nectar's and their lively Bluegrass Thursday series. This week's installment features a local band called DOJO that specializes in "'80s ninja slamgrass." What's that, you ask? Basically, it's bluegrass covers of 1980s rock classics — think "Sweet Child of Mine" with the lead riff on a mandolin. Really.

Intrigued? Mortified? A little of both? I hear ya. But the band has some serious pedigree, with Clint Bierman, Jeff Vallone and Peter Day of the Grift. Those guys are all great, so I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt and suggest their show this Thursday, December 4, will be a fun one.

On a semi-related note, I recall hearing stories a few years back about a Middlebury-area bluegrass band that specialized in Bon Jovi covers. But I never saw them and was never able to track them down. They've seemingly since evaporated into the ether. That band's name: Ban Jovi.

Listening In

A peek at what was on my iPod, turntable, eight-track player, etc., this week.

Cracker,Berkeley to Bakersfield

Honduras,Break

Andy Stott,Faith in Strangers

Arca,Zen

Thom Yorke,Tomorrow's Modern Boxes

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Beat Goes On"

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