Sending Up Flares, the fourth record from Casey Neill & The Norway Rats, is the sound of a band rallying together, turning the genre-bending range of its influences into the group’s most cohesive, cathartic album yet. Created amidst chaos and uncertainty, these songs offer a lifeline to a world in need of balance, shot through with stories about resolve, resilience, wonder, and positive human interaction.
Those themes come together in the album’s cinematic title track, where Neill sings about a stranded motorist whose car breaks down in the middle of the night, seemingly far away from civilization. “The flares are shot off in hopes someone will come to help,” explains the frontman, who co-wrote the album’s songs with guitarist/producer Chet Lyster. “Upon climbing a hill to get some perspective, the lights of a massive metropolis unfold with countless flares being launched by other people who also need relief. It’s the same realization of the castaway in ‘Message in a Bottle’ — I’m not alone in being alone. It can work as a metaphor for mental health, addiction, alienation, or simply trying to be seen.”
With Sending Up Flares, Casey Neill & The Norway Rats don’t just make themselves seen; they make themselves heard, too. Each of the band’s previous albums explored the evolving range of Neill’s musical interests, from the dreamy Americana songs that filled 2010’s Goodbye to the Rank and File to the electronic textures that peppered 2018’s Subterrene(whose critically-acclaimed songs received praise from Rolling Stone and No Depression). Here, the Portland-based supergroup finds room for everything, turning a wealth of musical influences — including folk, punk, art-rock, atmospheric soundscapes, guitar freak-outs, and string arrangements — into something singular. “I love exploring all of the music I love,” says Neill, who even nods to artistic role models like David Bowie, author Ursula K. Le Guin, and filmmaker Wim Wenders in the song “Meteor Shower.” “Sending Up Flares feels like we’ve reached a point where the band has settled into a natural, nuanced place”, he adds. “This is who we are. It’s what we do.”
And who, exactly, are the The Norway Rats? They’re a band of Pacific Northwest heavy hitters with a longtime roster that includes accordionist/keyboardist Jenny Conlee of the Decemberists, guitarist/producer Chet Lysterof the Eels, bassist Jesse Emerson of Amelia, and Neill (who, in addition to releasing solo material, often moonlights as a member of The Minus 5). Sending Up Flares also features guest appearances from a number of indie icons. Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker contributes vocal harmonies to the jittery “Jumping Out Of My Skin,” while Slang’s Anita Lee Elliott adds some George Harrison-influenced slide guitar riffs to the song’s arrangement. Scott McCaughey and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck — both of whom perform alongside Neill in The Minus 5 — appear on “The Stars Unseen,” which features McCaughey’s free-time percussion and Buck’s ghostly E-bow guitar lines. On an album filled with musical all-stars, though, it’s Casey Neill & The Norway Rats who shine the brightest. They’ve established their own musical mix — a melting pot of synthesized textures, organic instruments, and sharp songwriting — and they’ve never sounded so resolute.
A prolific songwriter and road warrior since the late 1990s, Americana and Scots/Irish-folk influences have often underscored his songwriting. Sending Up Flares hints at a European influence too, with songs that channel everything from the cinematic sweep of golden-era U2 to the dark, complex alt-rock of PJ Harvey. If time zero land is intimate and largely acoustic, then Sending Up Flares is broad, eclectic, and every bit as explosive as its title. A four-piece string section (Bizarre Star, arranged by Kyleen King) adds a symphonic punch to “How Beautiful Am I?,” the album’s tribute to Marianne Faithfull. Synths, stacked vocal harmonies, and burbling electronics run throughout “Fall Into Forever,” bringing to life the song’s bizarre storyline involving a Tokyo typhoon, Dante’s Paradiso, and pop star Britney Spears. Together, these 11 songs shine new light on a band who, after more than a dozen years together, have arrived somewhere singular and startlingly unique. “
Our sound has evolved continuously since 2010,” Neill says. “Every time we make a record, we hope we’ve reached the place we’ve been trying to get to all along. Sending Up Flares feels like that. It’s the destination.”
Jerry Joseph is a musician who lives in Portland Oregon, but he’s often gone. He’s been inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame but is still rather obscure to a lot of people. He plays well over 150 shows a year in the usual places. Across America. Sometimes in Europe, Mexico, and Central America. Then there’s these other places he plays—Lebanon, Israel, Kurdish Iraq, India, and Afghanistan. All over the Middle East, often in war zones and refugee camps.
In addition to his touring, Jerry has set up a non-profit called Nomad Music Foundation that acts as a sort of School of Rock for displaced teenagers in areas of conflict. So far, he has taken guitars and taught lessons in camps in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Sulaymaniyah and Dahuk, both in Kurdish Iraq. These life-changing missions have been written up in Rolling Stone, Relix, and PBS News Hour.
Oh yeah, and he’s really fucking great.
A triple threat—someone who works at the highest levels as a songwriter, singer, and player. Jason Isbell, who kinda personifies such, recently tweeted about triple threats and listed Jerry Joseph (along with Richard Thompson and St. Vincent) among the greatest examples of that phenomenon.
Most likely, if you know who Jerry is, you agree, but there’s also a big chance that you don’t. His talent, drive, work ethic, amazing body of work, and flat out badass-ness make him one of the most underrated and tragically overlooked artists alive today. He deserves better, and I’m hoping to help shine a light on who and what Jerry Joseph is and why you should listen to what he’s doing and saying.
First off, there’s the body of work. Jerry Joseph has been playing shows and making records since the 80s, first in a band called Little Women that at one point looked destined to be huge, but this is a crazy business and sometimes things just don’t go as planned. By the 90s Jerry was struggling with addiction while also creating the beginnings of a vast body of work as a solo artist and burning up the road backed by a mighty band called The Jackmormons. They built a considerable following in the great Northwest. Many of Jerry’s songs were recorded by the band Widespread Panic, and there are many people who know of Jerry through that connection. Later, after getting clean, Jerry toured and made some albums as part of Stockholm Syndrome, a sort of supergroup he formed with Panic bassist David Schools, who himself is an incredible musician. Much of Jerry’s following in the so-called jam band circles is through his affiliation with these bands.
Musical taste is a funny thing. People who are into one or another genre of music often don’t pay much attention to musicians who fall outside of those forms. The age of streaming and the internet have broadened things considerably, but there is still a form of segregation that occurs across various boundaries, often accompanied by derision for stylistic forms outside certain circles. I have spent much of my life rebelling against this way of listening, while sometimes still being as guilty as anyone about this exact thing. I’ve always been drawn to songwriters and the writerly aspects of music, and with some glaring exceptions, there has always been a disconnect between the so-called jam music scene and the so-called singer/songwriter genre. The fact that Jerry is a writer’s writer who has been mostly known in “jammy” circles has always made him somewhat an anomaly.
I have also always been partial to punk rock, yet there has always been a wall separating punk bands from jam bands, even though Black Flag, The National, Sonic Youth, and many of the legendary punk bands through the years have always proclaimed themselves massive Grateful Dead fans. I know Jerry Joseph to be a die-hard fan of all kinds of music across many genres, and there have been seeds of those many genres in most of his many records. Underneath it all, to me, he’s always been a punk rocker at the core.
Jerry, to me is a cult figure who could, in some alternate reality, have easily been one of the biggest stars in the world. One of the greatest live performers I have ever seen and long one of my favorite songwriters. I can’t hear the chorus of San Acacia without picturing Jerry singing it in front of 100,000 screaming fans, in a soccer stadium in Brazil. In the pouring rain. With everyone singing along.
Essay by Patterson Hood