Sam Llanas and company dip into the dark side with A Good Day To Die. Photo courtesy Daystorm music

The first time this project came to my attention was through my discovery of Sam Llanas (oh here he goes again with Sam Llanas…).  Maybe if you gave Mr. Llanas a listen, you might go on about him too.  He’s good!  A consummate performer, an elegant songwriter, and perhaps the most passionate vocalist I have witnessed in my life.  As much as I am loathe to participate in revisionism, my exposure to his 4A.M. disc has motivated me to want to explore his past work with the BoDeans, a group he is no longer a part of.  Mind you, I will only participate in those albums to which Llanas was a contributor.

The project band consists of Jim Eannelli playing bass and guitars, Guy Hoffman on drums, and Llanas providing acoustic guitars and vocals.  Many of the tracks feature keyboards by Gary Tanin, most notably known as a producer/engineer/audio mastering of global renown.  But there are significant contributions by Thatcher Schmid (violin and mandolin), Paul Gmeinder (cellos), Tiffany Hood (backing vocals), Janet Planet (vocals), Nick Kitsos (percussion) and Reggie Bordeaux (percussion).

But the title of the album had me hook, line and sinker: A Good Day To Day.

Let’s die!

Many of these tracks were interspersed into the StoryHealers production of Doug Vincent’s touching, masterful and intimately disturbing two man (Vincent and Llanas) show A Day For Grace which, if you missed it during any of its local runs in your neck of the woods, you were deprived of a powerful, emotionally charged account of the messed up likes of Vincent’s upbringing.  The show contained shortened, solo segments of some Absinthe songs, some Llanas songs, a couple of BoDeans songs for good measure as Vincent is an admitted BoDeans fan.  But you can read my review of the show located elsewhere on this blog space.

This review is about Absinthe.

“Intro” is, in reality, a stripped down version of the full-length song “A Good Day To Die”.  It is mostly wind-style synths droning with Llanas passionately singing of a good day to die.  An eerie foreshadowing of the macabre tone of the whole disc.  Yet another endearing quality that attracted me to the album.

Next track is immediately alive with a thundering, full band arrangement.  “Bully On The Corner” is an identifiable tale of little Sammy dealing with his own personal bully, Danny Keikler.  This is one of many songs from A Day For Grace.  The first verse describes the beatings he encountered everyday after kindergarten.  The bridge following asks what Sammy did to bring this treatment, this punishment upon himself for someone else’s (as everything  pauses for the word) ‘sin’.

Simply chilling.

Verse two finds little Sammy making the same wish Tom Hanks made in the movie Big.  Only Llanas wants his bigger self to be mean, as well!  The rhythm section carries the bulk of the verse until the band lets out for the vengeful line ‘How do you like it?’ after the bigger, meaner Sammy cleans Danny’s proverbial clock!

If you have ever been bullied as I have, you not only immediately side with Sammy, you rejoice at his vengeance.

An empty verse plays through once until we return to the fact that Sammy’s wish did not come true and as he approaches the bully’s corner, the butterflies take over.  A quiet verse builds the tension into a tremolo guitar solo break, which yields into a compressed, distorted guitar hold chord.

Now an older Sammy wonders why he was the target of the bully’s rage.  Dysfunctional Danny may have been abused at home, still this is no reason for Sammy to absorb the abuse.  The band as a whole brings the track to a halt.  I don’t know about any of you, but, I have been there, done that.  I was Sammy.  Nice to know Llanas and I have that trauma to share…

Slide guitar and fretless bass are punctuated with percussion at the start of “Defeat”.  When the beat kicks in an almost modern western gun battle comes to mind.  The verse vocals describe dire depictions before a stark call-and-response chorus makes us think this could be a follow-up to little Sammy’s story of defeat.  The chorus doesn’t need to be anything more than the repetition of the word ‘defeat’ to get the point across.  We’re beaten.

The second verse details more morose situations leading back to that call-and-response chorus.  The beaten tone of this track just MAKES you want to give up.  A lonely violin joins before the ‘soul squandered’ break into the guitar/violin duet.  Mandolin is brought in to finish the solo chorus section.

Once again, the ‘soul squandered’ bridge returns.

The third verse now contains a guitar melody to assist in the description of the bloody aftermath.  ‘Defeat’ is called and returned.  Our misery is ended, accompanied by fretless bass, slide guitars and violin.

For a track titled “A Good Day To Die”, this track rocks!  Llanas and those curveballs.  Distorted guitars and tom toms build that intro into a tightly compressed lead.  The vocals make reference to Llanas’ brother Thomas (tomato to his friends) whose description sounds a lot like me.  Thomas was the second of seven, I was the third of three.  Easy to be overlooked either way.

A violin joins during the third stanza of the verse to further detail Thomas’ woes.  A doubling of the vocal on the line advising Llanas’ character not to blow it in life is employed to highlight Thomas’ concern for his brother.

There is a break with a change of melody tells of Thomas running away.  Brilliantly woven into the arrangement, fitting, but breaking it up.

A solo further builds tension, before it finds its way to the vocal melody only to bring us to a new bridge that finds Llanas losing touch with his brother’s memory.  You can’t like where this is going.  The next verse breaks down to accentuates the poignancy.  Llanas is awoken to the sounds of tears.  You just get a bad feeling from all this.

Sure enough, at age 19, Thomas has ended his life, killing himself with his father’s gun, leaving behind an insufficient suicide note.  Then again, most suicide notes are always insufficient.  Having already spilled the beans about A Day For Grace, this is one of the songs within the show which has a very difficult scene about suicide.  The topic may not seem like entertainment, just check out the show if you have the chance (they are doing an e-performance in November, search Doug Vincent or A Day For Grace.

Llanas caps detailing the scene of his brother’s death with ‘I just hope it was a good day to die’!  He revisits the intro track by repeating ‘was a good day, was a good day, it was a good day to die’.  A hot solo punches through the mournful tone of Llanas’ vocal ad-lib right down to the staccato chorus falling off for one final Llanas ‘whoa-oh –oh’, with a wolf call and acoustic string-picked end.

Sad sonic depictions of a life too short.

“Spanish Waltz” begins with very faint crow-calls (live crows field-recorded by Gary Tanin)  before the notes (both plucked and sustained) lead to a very pretty yet sorrowful lead before the lyrics begin.  Those lyrics tell the tale of an angel, perhaps Thomas, perhaps a love interest, partaking of forbidden streams and ripe fruit.  Before ascending upward, it lays seeds to one’s birth.  Yet the angel asserts that he is alone forever.  Possibly Thomas acknowledging the hereafter…

Llanas is such a brilliant lyricist, he leaves you with choices of interpretation of the lyrics.

The choruses end with the line ‘for you, I have hungered, for you I will die’.  A solo, plectoral at first, gives way to volume swelled notes.  A return to the lonely chorus ascends into a repeated upward modulation to the final descending riff.  Tear jerking, but beautiful.

“It Don’t Bother Me” has been one of my favorite songs of mine since first hearing snippets of it during A Day For Grace.  This full version is most dirge-like, with the slippery fretless bass sliding into a distorted buzzsaw-ish guitars fire notes here and there.

Llanas’ stunted vocal describes growing up in the cruelest of places, the school playground, being underappreciated when it comes to being picked for school yard games.  I feel Mr. Llanas’ pain.  I remember one jerk, Ricky Stine, outright saying “I don’t want that big, ugly ox on my team”.  I comfort myself with the old axiom of living well to exact the best revenge.  If there is any justice, or if Karma has a sense of fairness, Stine is riddled with trauma to this day.

But the tune doesn’t bother me, in fact, it has very pretty backing vocals assisting Llanas’ assertion that these playground prejudices don’t bother him.

Once again, I feel Mr. Llanas as the second verse talks of family alcoholism.  Why did Stine think I was ugly?  Because my parents couldn’t give up their vices (Four Roses whiskey and Tarryton 100’s) for the month before and during my gestation, so I was born with a cleft lip and palate.  Again, maybe Stine had a child born with a cleft lip and palate, but life is never that fair…  But I covered all that dirt in the review for A Day For Grace, so I am not barking up that painful memory tree again.

The pretty backing vocals prop up the last lyric of each line of the next verse.  An arpeggiated guitar lends voice to Llanas’ desperate assertion of his repeated attempts to be good.  But we return to being reminded that Llanas isn’t bothered.  Maybe if he keeps repeating it, we’ll all buy into it.

We find ourselves now back at another intro-of-the-song style dirge which has a brief lead inserted into the middle of it.  But we are at our last verse which finds an aged, forgetful Llanas, not bothered by his loneliness as the pretty backing vocals get a chance to stretch out on the vocal ad-lib outro, which culminates in one more dirge with a minor solo to the dead stop ending.

Fuzzy bass and Llanas’ voice addressing the coldest day he’s known (which, coming from Waukesha Wisconsin must be a bitch) occurred in August.  That let’s you know “Messed Up Likes Of Us” is going to be hard to deal with.

It is.

The chorus has Llanas lamenting the line that was crossed, despondent over lives torn asunder, and shedding tears for the messed up likes of us.  I said it before, an anthem for dysfunction.

The music builds up during the chorus and the strings build up and the entire dynamic falls for the aftermath of the second verse, which seems to be detailing the mood of the household after the suicide of Thomas.

These songs just stream together as if Llanas spent months outlining the storyline.  There is more continuity in Llanas’ tales on this disc than there is coming out of Hollywood today.

The chorus repeats, but Llanas’ passion does not let up.

A low-end, double-note break with one of Llanas’ famous vocal ad-libs closes the song on a low, hold-note.  Yet he surprises us with one more different low note.  Ya got me again!

Semi-Gregorian chants start off “Still Alone” until percussion and a slap-back guitar join in.  This all mutates into a very Nashville-sounding open reminiscent of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy”.

But another curveball is thrown as the bridge is entirely different.  A little shuffle beat and a more hopeful chord pattern with disparate lyrics make way for a quick lead into the chorus, reminding us Llanas is still alone.

A pick-strummed guitar in a minor key leads to an entirely different section.  I like changes, keeping the listener on their toes, that makes for good music!  But that change is short-lived as we return to a new verse, but Llanas is still alone, and drinking to maintain that status.

We go back to the lonely bridge, and then to the lonely chorus.  We get another visit from that different section, but that yields to the repeated line of ‘making you stay away’,  The repetition drifts back into the same chants as were heard in the beginning, but they are arranged wonderfully and seamlessly.  The percussion builds up and as the outro builds stronger, and the chants are allowed to ad-lib as well.  The end is a hold note which is cut short for the intro to “Angelina”.

A synth with a percussive attack holds and gives way to the delicate finger picking of “Angelina”.  The lyrics mostly deal with a child wondering about the childhood of their parent, perhaps even a grandparent, asking questions of what they were like when they were young.  A slight call-and-return between acoustic guitar and drums is heard.

The second verse deals with the issues of first generation immigrants and the segregation of the poor, yet asking was this person proud regardless of their stature in society.  The second stanza of the verse is harmonized before another call-and-response break.

The last verse addresses the inevitable separation that occurs from generation to generation.  The vocal is sparse in the mix, along with that distant call, the slippery bass makes a resurgence.

“Dying In My Dreams” starts off cheery enough, with double chord strikes and arpeggiated notes in between each of those phrasings.  But I know what’s coming.  I heard some of this in the play, so don’t get too cheered up.

A harmonized solo of triple notes intros the vocals.  At first, Llanas confesses to not thinking about it, but then face plants directly in the path of good ol’ muerte.  We all will eventually.  But his brother’s death haunts his dreams as the chords migrate minor.  But his brother’s death is now surplanted with images of his friends dying.

Never mind cheering up, just throw cheer out the window.

After a very quick bridge, the next verse is a gruesome depiction of another relative’s decapitation.  Yet, the corpse speaks to Llanas, asking to remain held.  Llanas must have experienced some heavy, heavy trauma in his life.  This may explain his serious demeanor in person.  I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with him in New York City in September, and he was always all business.

Another quick bridge references purple haze.  Part nod to Hendrix, part description of grief.  The chorus proclaims ‘it’s hard to see this’.

A light solo breaks the tension momentarily, and interplays with the notes of the rhythm melody.  His next vision of a friend’s death involves drowning.  My brother drowned in real life.  Once again, Llanas hit me where I live.

The chorus leads to a break repeating that his friends are dying in his dreams until the band holds for a keyboard swell with instruments fractured and interspersed between lines like ‘I can’t stop it’ and ‘I have to watch it’ before the wind-down ending leaving only that keyboard alone.

Much like our protagonist.

Double notes and a high-hat sounding much like a ticking clock start off “What I Don’t Feel”, another one from A Day For Grace.  The first verse describes looking at a clock so, sonically, they are dead-on.

After pondering his life of death, a nylon string guitar accompanies his admission of ‘feeling lots of nothing’.  Congas perpetuate the passing of time, the clock ticking.  The chorus has Llanas wailing (man, what a voice he wails with!) ‘Burning light, oh, won’t you shine on me…’.  An ad-lib bridge leads to a staccato double hit chord break much like the beginning of the track.

We return to the second verse, which is a descriptive of a candle burning, dripping wax running to the floor.  As the flame extinguishes, so does the will to live.  The wailing chorus repeats through to an ad-lib bridge, to a return to the ticking clock break until a hold note brings the track to a close.

Changing the mood, we get to rocking but this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.  Llanas’ subject matter on this disc has been rough.  Other than another changeup, why should we expect anything less from “A Little Bit Of Hell”?  Just because it was in A Day For Grace, go back and read that review, that wasn’t sweetness and light either.

You may want to put away any nearby sharp objects…

With 16th notes, snare hits and all the other instruments holding the pattern for two measures, then modulating and stop-holding for two more measures behind synth bleats and blips accompanied by tom tom strikes until a lead guitar adds more tension to an already terse scene (picture ‘50s cop-noir) feeling very “spy” until the verse comes in.

With those verse lyrics, Llanas describes a scene out of something more like “Criminal Minds” than one would find in ‘50s cop-noir.  Body after body being exhumed from a torture chamber in a murderer’s lair.

More noir solo.

Verse two is a scene from the interrogation room at police HQ.  The cold detachment in Llanas’ tone as he assumes the role of the killer makes for a distinct separation from narrator to suspect.

The bridge finds Llanas singing in front of a slick lead guitar ‘please forgive me father, please forgive me son’.

The lead breaks down as does the instrumentation as Llanas now assumes the role of prosecutor in the trial, asking for a statement from the suspect in a cold emotionless tone.

The suspect (now convict) replies that any sentence imposed upon him by the court would not equate to the tortured life he’s led, the sickness in his blood.

The choruses all detail the various participants experience with a little bit of hell.  But it breaks down to some octave/whammy-pedal/synth radio noises and the backing vocals changing from ‘oohs’ to ‘a little bit, a little bit, a little bit of hell’, but then Llanas is left alone to sing the final line ‘a little bit of hell’.  To put this into perspective, the inspiration for this track is infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, whose crimes involved rape, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism.

I knew I loved this disc.

A straight-forward rhythm and a McGuinn-styled 12 string lead into a “Time For Us”.  The first verse asking to ‘never mind the sorrow’ but rather enjoy the limited time there is, that ‘time for us’.

Verse two recounts the speedy passage of time.  Song after song has been written about this.  But perhaps the most classic line from the verse has to be ‘keeps your ass, on its toes’.

The chorus has lead notes interjected into the lyrics.  The bridge repeats but leads to a stop before the grim proclamation that ‘everyone is dying, in their own little way’.  But an interesting point with this track is the difference in Llanas’ tone.  It is lower, throatier, even more grim if that’s possible.  But no less emotive.

A solo within the melody note and some vocal ad-lib swells, which all end in a hold note.

Or does it?

Having dealt with several artists who like to hide tracks after the last note of the last listed track on the disc, this gimmick-weary reviewer has gotten in the habit of letting discs play on past the point where most “less patient” people would have hit the eject button.

After some silence, a bell tolls.  The chime continues, and gets louder gradually as crows call in the distance.  A train whistle is heard as the chimes now bend down in pitch.  White noise wind builds up.  They all fade away to leave the bell alone again, but now Llanas is mixed way back reprising ‘was a good day to die’ with the wind swelling and retreating but the bell continues on.  Llanas does impressive impersonations of coyote howls as the bell toll fades.

Now we are done.  The player has stopped, no more surprises.

If you don’t like the dark portion of life, if you live in a Disney existence, this disc is not for you.  Also, you should just go out and walk in front of a speeding truck now, because life will eat you alive.  If you are of sturdier stuff, you do your thing to find this disc from 1998.  The good stuff in life is worth searching for.

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  1. Harry Says:

    Again a beautifully written review. I had my own bully, my brother 15 years my senior. He tried to make a bully of me. Although I learned to fight, I couldnt bring myself to hurt someone like my brother hurt me. One day in the school yard I got into a fight. I had my victim in a head lock and a crowd was cheering for blood. They kept encouraging me to punch his face in. Guess what! Im the one in tears knowing how bad I could hurt someone and having a crowd of kids yelling for blood. I couIdnt punch him, I couldnt cause him any pain, therefore, I simply got up and walked away. Since, I have not knowingly bullied and always tried to protect the underdog.. To this day I still feel the pain of others and for some reason it tears my heart to pieces… Oh well, keep up the good work my friend…


    • BouleBlog Says:

      Harry, I somehow feel, and really wish, you had posted this comment in conjunction with the review of the St. Sebastian School Character Education assembly as the message you put forth in this comment would do far greater good following the Amanda Todd video. To let kids/adults know that there is an alternative to bullying. To set the example for walking away when the peer pressure group calls for blood. As another comment I received through another site said: “If we all try to make a difference, that’s how we can change the world. Compassion.” Thank you for the kind words, but save for the comments before and after the press release, this was a notification from the Sam Llanas camp regarding his contribution to the cause of suicide and bullying prevention. The Amanda Todd video made such an impression on me, I felt it germane to included it in this press release to drive home the point; bullying, suicide, substance abuse are all problems that only further increase the speed with which our society crumbles. If we cannot show tolerance for our fellow planet occupants, may the Mayan calendar expire and us along with it.


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