Thursday, December 27, 2007

An Indie Music Junkie's Year-End Best Of List

What would December be without crass commercialism, rampant orgy-like spending, and random year-end lists?

It Was the Best of Concerts, It Was the Worst of Concerts

Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan, October 22, 2007 - In October the two music icons appeared at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. Costello, armed with an array of guitars, delivered a memorable solo performance full of the spite, anger, humor, and occasional tenderness that mark his best songs. There was crowd participation, furious guitar playing, and a perfect “The Scarlet Tide” to close the set. Then Dylan ambled out, played a couple songs on guitar, and retreated behind his keyboard for a set that sounded like the end days. The mix was horrible, and Dylan could barely wheeze three words at a time as he growled his way through the murk.

Reunion Album That Reconfirmed It All

Beyond - Dinosaur Jr. - Sure, J Mascis looks like the guy you always see in Best Buy monopolizing Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock while children wait impatiently for their crack at it, but Beyond was a tremendous reunion album. With its mix of guitar squall and buried melodies, it stands right alongside You’re Living All Over Me as a classic Dinosaur Jr. album.

Reunion Album That Ruined It All

The Weirdness - The Stooges - Forget that “Lust for Life” is now the theme song for a cruise ship commercial (with the lines about liquor and drugs carefully removed). This underwhelming album by the Stooges killed whatever mystique they had left. Even Steve Albini as “recorder” couldn’t save it.

Best Artist to Have a Song Featured in a Car Commercial

It was an interesting year for Band of Horses. After a spat with fans in San Diego over videotaping of the band’s July 6 performance, the Sub Poppers took some heat for licensing songs to Wal-Mart for use in an online campaign. In recent weeks, the band’s song “Funeral” has been in heavy rotation for a Ford television commercial, marking the strangest use of a song for commercial purposes since Volkswagen used Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in 2000.

Best Artist to Not Have a Song Featured in a Car Commercial

That Tom Waits is a bad mofo. In January, Waits won a decision against Adam Opel AG, an offshoot of General Motors, for using a Waits soundalike to sell cars…in Scandinavia. It was the second time in less than two years that Waits won such a lawsuit. Rumors that BMW wants to use Waits’ “Misery is the River of the World” for their 2008 marketing campaign are not yet confirmed.

Favorite Concert

When The National played the Duck Room in St. Louis on June 11, Boxer was freshly released and beginning to garner plaudits that ranged from reserved praise to over-the-top awe. What could have been a sparsely attended show was instead a packed house with an eager, energetic crowd. Relying on the new material but also playing songs from Alligator and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, the band delivered an intense, cathartic performance, surpassing the increasing hype. Now, if someone has a recording of it, I’m not hard to reach.

Reissues Are More Than Just Cash Grabs

Bronze – Calenture, The Triffids - The underappreciated 1980s Australian band finally got their due with a nice reissue of their 1987 album Calenture, the follow up to the essential Born Sandy Devotional. The original album, demos, and outtakes were spread out over two discs, plus the album’s packaging was snazzy and liner notes were actually informative.

Silver – Stand in the Fire, Warren Zevon - Long out of print on disc, Warren Zevon’s Stand in the Fire received the digital treatment this year. A recording of a wild, frenzied 1981 performance, the album showed Zevon at his manic best. Four cuts excluded from the original album were included to top it off. Play it loud.

Gold – Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth - Sonic Youth’s much-worshiped Daydream Nation was given a fat dose of bonus tracks this year. The original album is, of course, great, but the real treat here was the second disc, which was jammed full of Sonic Youth goodness, including a live version of each album track, as well as covers of songs by The Beatles, Neil Young, and Captain Beefheart. A nice essay and cool period photos made this reissue an essential purchase.

You Fool, Reissues Just Rob You of Money

Pointless reissues or compilations were certainly not in short supply in 2007. While many major labels could be taken to task for uninspired reissues/compilations, Columbia’s bland, boring, and utterly useless Dylan release represented everything wrong with such releases. With zero unreleased recordings (unless you paid on iTunes), this abomination rehashed most of the same damn songs as Dylan’s many other compilations. With an artist whose vault must be packed with unreleased goodies, lazy stuff like this shouldn’t even exist.

Favorite Albums

Bronze – Neon Bible, Arcade Fire - Even if many music fans and critics blew their loads over 2004’s Funeral, the Arcade Fire’s self-produced sophomore album gave everyone a chance to get fired up again. Even though the images of apocalypse and bombs could grow a little heavy-handed at times, Win Butler’s voice, ranging from howls to everything in between, and the band’s damn loud playing made this album more than just another rant about the sorry state of our world.

Silver – Armchair Apocrypha, Andrew Bird - With the guitar pushed to the forefront, Armchair Apocrypha marked a stylistic shift for Andrew Bird. The songs were highly textured and far more layered than his previous albums; violin loops, drums, whistling, guitars and glockenspiels were thrown together to create a symphonic sound that amazingly didn’t result in garbled mush. The songs could sometimes be decidedly heavy; absurd superstitions, old age, the futility of war and the fall of empires, childhood confusion, and a general helplessness against a vast, impersonal world all unfolded in Bird’s lyrics. There aren’t many albums that sound like this one, and that’s a good thing.

Gold – Boxer, The National - Never has an album whose characters suffer under a veil of fuck-it-all resignation sounded so good. The songs on Boxer invoked themes of broken relationships, people aging quickly beyond their years, and passing, superficial comforts like drugs and booze; even the implied threats of “Start a War” sounded powerless and empty. Evocative lyrics, Matt Berninger’s weary baritone, and the band’s sometimes minimalist, sometimes layered instrumentation combined beautifully to create one of the best albums of the decade.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Movie Review: Enchanted

A Man Card violation is a serious offense. Holding your special lady friend’s purse while she shops, watching figure skating on ESPN2 when it’s an NFL Sunday, and drinking beverages that combine the name of a fruit with “tini” are three such violations. Enchanted is similarly a dicey proposition. With at least one extravagant, over-the-top song-and-dance routine about true love, an all-women shopping spree while bubblegum poppy music plays in the background, and a slow dance between the two main characters with a weepy love song that sounds like the evil spawn of Michael Bolton and James Blunt, a man could be forgiven for his trepidation about this movie.

Despite these potential crotch-killing features, Enchanted is actually a pretty funny movie, with enough humor so that the men out there won’t need to feel guilty about watching it.Enchanted stars Amy Adams as Giselle, a simple girl from Andalasia who sings to the animals, dreams of her one true love, and is so happy that it’s likely she’s been living on a Percocet drip feed since birth. Meanwhile, Price Edward (James Marsden) is busy wearing purple costumes with puffy sleeves, keeping his teeth freakishly white, and trying to convince the world that he’s not homosexual. Their paths eventually cross when Edward rescues Giselle from the vile clutches of a troll. They fall in love and, in true Hollywood fashion, plan to get married the very next day. A call is made to Us Magazine to generate interest from the paparazzi.

But, alas, there are complications. Edward’s mother, the evil queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), has a serious Freudian complex and is opposed to her little Eddie getting married. On the two lovebirds’ wedding day, she tricks the bride-to-be and pushes her into a wishing well. Giselle is sent hurtling to a place so vile, so evil, so horrific, so dastardly that it can only be described in two words: New York. In a hilarious series of scenes, she emerges from a sewer and is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of a land entirely different from Andalasia. This new land is one of honking car horns, gridlocked traffic, and strategic product placement. She wanders the cold, lonely, unforgiving streets of New York aimlessly, and is briefly forced into a life of prostitution as she finds the job market for super-sweet singing Andalasians isn’t very good (wait, wrong movie).

Eventually Giselle scales a billboard that advertises the Palace Casino, thinking it’s actually a castle where she can find food, water, and a refill for her Percocet drip. As fate would have it, Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) just happens to be taking a taxi home from his law office, when his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey) spots the red-haired woman stuck on the billboard. Giselle is coaxed down by the lawyer, though it’s not a storybook landing as she lands on him and he complains about an injury to his elbow.Giselle is taken back to Robert’s place, where, after several glasses of Pinot, he convinces her to pose naked while he throws salami at her (wait, still the wrong movie). Actually, she sleeps on the couch, and the next morning calls various rodents, birds, and vermin to clean the apartment. Things get a little hairy when Robert’s soon-to-be fiancée Nancy (Idina Menzel) stumbles into his place to find a bubbly redhead wearing only his towel. Since this is a Disney movie, he later explains that nothing happened, minus the salami tossing, and she’s eventually convinced.

Meanwhile, Edward has vowed to find Giselle. Emerging from the same sewer lid, he immediately accosts several Verizon employees at swordpoint. He’s eventually followed by Nathaniel (Timothy Spall), who’s been dispatched by the queen to ensure that Edward fails in his attempt to rescue his brdige, and that Edward also avoids getting shanked on the subway because of his purple, puffy-sleeved ensemble. After some hilarious misadventures (including one where Edward slays the “steel beast,” i.e. bus), the prince manages to find Giselle in the apartment. But she’s no longer the simple Andalasian girl he fell in love with about eight hours earlier. A non-date at a pizza parlor with Robert and a shopping spree with Morgan have shown her there’s more to love than flowers, chirping birds, and apologetic, drunken 3 am phone calls. She’s become a thoroughly modern New York woman and wants Edward to take her on a date.

The King and Queen ball just happens to be approaching, and from the beginning it’s obvious it won’t be a party to forget. The dancing is wild, various white powders are readily available, and the drinks are flowing. Narissa shows up in an attempt to ensure the marriage doesn’t happen. She somehow manages to trick Giselle again (this girl should know better by now); Giselle bites from the queen’s poison apple and immediately falls asleep like a narcoleptic at a bowling alley. With the clock approaching midnight and Giselle on her way to that great Disney Channel in the sky, Nathaniel reveals that the queen has poisoned her and that only the nectar of an Amazonian tree can save her. But all the Walgreens that have this nectar are closed, so they have to settle for True Love’s Kiss to revive her. Edward plants one on her, but nothing happens; he realizes that Robert is Giselle’s true love. Robert wakes her up with a kiss.

This enrages Narissa, who’s jealous of Giselle’s beauty, upbeat attitude, and easy access to Robert’s credit card. She turns into a fire-breathing dragon, destroys the ballroom, takes one last swig from the open bar, and snatches Robert as she scales the building. Giselle pursues the queen and rescues Robert; she even manages to send Narissa tumbling about 500 stories, where the queen splats into the pavement and has her jewelry stolen and pockets turned inside-out by street thugs. Giselle and Robert live happily ever after. Edward even pairs up with Nancy and takes her with him to Andalasia, where she’s clearly in for many unfulfilled nights. So everyone’s happy. Except for the evil queen, who’s being scraped off the sidewalk by the New York Sanitation Department.

Enchanted is a clever and funny movie, with enough humor to offset some of its more wimpy aspects. Disney manages to intelligently poke fun at its own dream world of eternal sunshine by contrasting it with the real world of people with relationship troubles. Giselle and Edward’s brand of optimism/lunacy is completely out of place in modern-day New York, and the movie’s “fish out of water” element is one of its biggest strengths. The actors are cast perfectly; Adams is great as Giselle and also can belt out a tune with gusto. For you guys out there, watch it with an open mind, and you won’t be disappointed.

After further review, Enchanted isn’t a total Man Card violation. It’s entertaining, humorous, and there’s enough sex and violence to keep men watching (okay, not really). There are many more things a man can do to lose his Man Card than enjoy this film. Like watching a Lifetime movie starring Kelly Martin during Super Bowl Sunday.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Book Review: The Replacements - All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History by Jim Walsh

Jim Walsh’s The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting marks the first full-length book covering the musical misadventures of the Minneapolis band. If there ever was a band perfect for such a study, it’s the ‘Mats. Alternative before the term had yet to be co-opted and applied to everyone from Nirvana to, ugh, Better Than Ezra, the band’s reputation for inebriated concert performances that could be either transcendent or the equivalent of drunken karaoke, erratic off-stage behavior, and occasional flashes of studio brilliance is every music journalist’s wet dream. With the ‘Mats, there’s enough internal band dysfunction and tall tales to fill a Minneapolis dive bar. The trick is separating the fact from the fiction to arrive at an understanding of the band that is more than just VH-1 Behind the Music caricature. Although Walsh’s book is always engaging and often interesting, with plenty of “the fish was this big” stories, it doesn’t really add any new understanding to either the band or its place in music history.

The book does have some strong qualities to make it a worthwhile read. First, Walsh has managed to get contributions from many participants and unwitting bystanders in the ‘Mats madness, including Twin/Tone co-founder Peter Jesperson, R.E.M. guitarist and bane to flight attendants Peter Buck, and Husker Du-er Grant Hart. Hold Steady singer/indie darling Craig Finn, and purveyor of everything that is soulless and wrong with third-generation punk, Green Day singer Bill Joe Armstrong, are called in to show how the ‘Mats influenced later generations of musicians. For whatever reason, Kurt Cobain was unavailable for comment (what’s that… he did what?)

The contributors’ comments and recollections help the reader understand what the Minneapolis music scene was like in the ‘Mats heyday, and how the band was both influenced by, and helped shape, this scene. As expected, there are enough stories of the ‘Mats in-fighting, on-stage and backstage antics, and drunken exploits to satisfy those who like their musical anecdotes with a twist of self-induced implosion. Some of the stories show that the ‘Mats’ drunken hijinks have been exaggerated over time, and were, in some cases, carefully orchestrated to maintain an image.

Despite this, the book is ultimately disappointing; there are far too many gaps, holes, and missing plotlines in the ‘Mats history to ignore. Of course this is the potential drawback of any oral history; the author is ultimately dependent on his interviewees to provide good and complete details. In this case, the result is an incomplete ‘Mats history; Michael Azerrad’s chapter on the band in Our Band Could Be Your Life gives a better overview of the band in fewer pages.The book’s shortcomings include:

There are little-to-no discussions about the (potential) inspirations or origins of the ‘Mats songs, with only a few exceptions. Plenty of contributors spend pages wetting themselves over how good “Unsatisfied” is, but most other songs are ignored.

There are few actual dates given in the book; album releases and concert performances blend from one to the next as the years roll by. If you don’t know your ‘Mats history, this book isn’t a good starting point.

With the exception of one new quote from Chris Mars, all the quotes from the original band members are taken from previous interviews and news features. These quotes don’t add much to the book, especially since it’s mostly accepted that the ‘Mats tended to portray specific personas in interviews. In Walsh’s defense, it is difficult to create a complete oral history when the main players decline to comment.

With the exception of Bob Stinson, whose chemically-addled life is addressed in brutal detail, the reader gets very little sense of what the ‘Mats were like as people. Instead, the band members remain little more than musical stereotypes: Tommy Stinson comes across as nothing more than a naïve and inexperienced boy, Chris Mars is the silent member, and Paul Westerberg remains the truculent/troubled/occasionally cruel/sometimes caring singer-poet.

Overall I expected more from this book, especially given the number of people interviewed and Walsh’s extensive personal experience with the band. Like a drunkenly sloppy ‘Mats live performance or Pleased To Meet Me, the book has some high points, a few drunken low points, and a few broken bottles scattered along the way. At the end of the day the reader is left a little underwhelmed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Addicted to Survivorman

I’m not a survivalist, outdoorsman, hunter, fisherman, shelter builder, or fire starter. Once as a child I tried to camp out in my backward; after several hours of having an exposed oak tree’s root jammed into my back as I tried to sleep, I got bored and frustrated and retreated into the cozy environs of my parent’s house.

This means I should have no interest in Les Stroud’s Survivorman. However, this show has quickly become one of the few television programs on my required viewing list that doesn’t involve footballs, absurd storylines of escapes from Panamanian prisons, or rerun episodes of George Costanza’s various neuroses.

The brainchild of Stroud, a Canadian survival enthusiast (an understatement of terms: the man spent his honeymoon living a paleolithic existence in the Canadian wilderness with his wife) who also plays a mean blues harmonica, Survivorman features Stroud stranded alone with only his camera gear and a few random odds and ends in some of the most godforsaken locations on earth (Passaic, New Jersey is not one of the locations…yet). Stroud’s challenge is to then survive in this location for seven days, film the proceedings, and avoid catching a pathogen or parasite and/or being mauled by an animal with giant claws, sharp teeth, and a penchant for dehydrated and starving Canadian survivalists.

A few things make Survivorman truly unique and separate it from the standard boorish and humorless macho survival show. First and foremost is Stroud’s personality; he has an “everyman” quality and doesn’t come across as the stereotypical Neanderthal survivalist hell bent on proving his manhood by slaying a grizzly bear with his bare hands. Stroud possesses a sort of Canadian Zen humor that is endearing to the viewer; whether he’s stranded on a life raft off the coast of Belize, stuck in a swamp in Georgia being drained by mosquitoes, or rejoicing at being able to drink a few drops of swill-quality water from a puddle, Stroud’s enthusiasm, honesty, and calmness (on camera, at least) in situations where most of us would panic, curse cruel fate, and weep uncontrollably is impressive. Of course, off camera Stroud could be having his own little Serenity Now outbursts.

He also allows the viewer to see both his successes and failures. Even though he could probably start a fire with nothing more than a Gordon Lightfoot LP and a VHS copy of Canadian Bacon, Stroud doesn’t put on any hardass survivalist façade. When he cannot find food or is even forced to cut a trip short due to lack of food and dehydration, it’s captured on film; when being stranded alone for days in locations that lack the comforts of even primitive living (not to mention the Internet!) begins to take a toll on his mental state, the cameras still roll. And unlike many of the more flamboyant nature show personalities, Stroud clearly respects the beauty, power, and sheer indifference of the harsh environments he’s trying to survive in. He’s more interested in sharing his experience with the viewer than in trying to play grab-ass with alligators, mountain lions, or polar bears.

The final aspect that makes Survivorman so engaging is the simple fact that Stroud operates all the cameras himself; his support crew drops him off and then gets the hell out of there. Once the crew is gone, Stroud is entirely alone and is responsible for building a shelter, exploring the environment, searching for food, and trying to avoid freezing to death at night or dying from heat stroke during the day. In order to capture as much footage as possible, Stroud frequently needs to place and re-place the cameras at various points, which in turn means he must often navigate dangerous terrain multiple times for the sake of good camera shots.

I’ve read that Survivorman is quickly gaining popularity and is one of The Discovery Channel’s highest-rated shows. Les Stroud has even appeared on Craig Ferguson’s late night show, and I’m sure the 18 people who watch that show were impressed. Of course, I don’t think families are gathering around the idiot box in droves to watch The Discovery Channel. Regardless, Survivorman is an informative and engaging television show, even if your idea of rough living is missing out on that first cup of coffee in the morning.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Book Review: I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You, by Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell, and Scott Shuffitt

The Big Lebowski is the funniest movie ever. For those of you still reading, you’re either aghast in horror at such a statement, coffee now spat out on your computer screen, or you’re an Achiever (fan of the movie) in total agreement who’s busy sucking down White Russians and reciting lines from the movie like “The Dude abides,” “This is not Nam, this is bowling, there are rules,” or many of the more-obscenity-laced quotes from the movie (“First of all Dude, you don’t have an ex. Secondly, this a f—king show dog, with f—king papers. You can’t board it, it gets upset, its hair falls out. The f—cking dog has f—cking papers”).

For those Achievers for whom the movie offers an ethos, catharsis against the daily grind, or Zen philosophy for how to live, I’m a Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski is the book we’ve been waiting for. Written by four Lebowski fans (and Lebowski Fest founders) with both a fierce dedication to the movie and an apparent abundance of available free time, this humorous book offers enough Lebowski ins and outs to satisfy even the most rabid fan.

The book is logically divided into chapters that each take a specific approach related to the movie, and even includes a forward by Jeff Bridges (the Dude himself…er, the movie version of the Dude, anyway). The various chapters cover everything from ways to “Dude-ify” your life, to playful yet informative interviews with the movie’s actors (major roles like John Goodman and minor roles like Jim Hoosier, who played Jesus Quintana’s bowling partner and didn’t even have a single line of dialogue), to a tidy analysis of how The Big Lebowski became a cult classic, to various Lebowski tidbits, including the number of F-bombs dropped in the movie (281 according to the authors. I still count 279, and yes, I clearly need professional psychiatric help).

The most revealing chapter of the book contains interviews with the real-life people upon whom the movie versions of the Dude, Walter, and Little Larry Sellers were based. To a certain amount of horror, we learn that there really was an incident in which a junior high kid was confronted in his home by two men who claimed the kid had stolen the Dude’s car. One of the men even produced the kid’s homework, extracted from the seat of the stolen car, encased in a plastic baggie as if it was some sort of evidence bomb.

A question that runs throughout the book is why exactly some people like this movie so much. This is a good question, especially since on the surface the movie is little more than the story of a hapless unemployed hippie who only wants to replace a rug in his “home” that was, uh, pissed upon. Many theories are mentioned by people ranging from the actors themselves to celebrity fans of the movie. Some of the more interesting theories include:

The movie is very quotable, and it’s incredibly fun and obnoxious to annoy non-Achievers with these quotes. Personal recommendation: saying “I can get you a toe by three o’clock this afternoon,” as Walter says to the Dude, is the perfect way to end any awkward or unwanted conversation.
Through his unemployment, laziness, and pacifism, The Dude possesses a certain Zen understanding of the world that people in the real world envy.
It’s the perfect buddy movie. Maybe this explains why it seems that men are more inclined to like this movie than women.
The writing is funny, perceptive, and insightful. In addition, each scene in the movie has something memorable.
Plenty of people think the movie is stupid, ridiculous, and a waste of film, which makes its appeal that much greater for people who already like it.
The movie sports a great collection of characters, including a pornographer, several nihilists, a reactionary police chief, a giggling video artist, a female artist whose work “has been commended as being strongly vaginal,” a stonewalling teenage kid, a purple-jumpsuit-wearing-pederast bowler named Jesus, and an Uzi-toting Vietnam veteran who’s largely responsible for most of the Dude’s troubles throughout the movie, among others. For many people, this reminds them of their last family reunion.
Some people smoke the hippy lettuce and this is the perfect movie to accompany such an activity.

The cult of Lebowski doesn’t yet rival that of Star Wars or Star Trek; however, it’s far less nerdy and shouldn’t pose a major hindrance when trying to get laid. Even if we Achievers are walking a tightrope between eclectic taste and total, all-out dweebiness, it’s nice to finally have a book that documents what we’ve known for years.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Book Review: I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You've Ever Heard, by Tom Reynolds

Your Thanksgiving was a disaster. Your wife warned you that her third cousin’s extended family “might” be coming to your home for Turkey Day dinner, but you never expected this to happen. Their trailer currently resides in your front yard, your house is being treated like a Red Roof Inn, mashed potatoes are somehow smeared on the walls, and the cousin’s teenage son is suggestively eying your dog with something that approximates lust.

You’re angry, frustrated, and a little depressed; to make things even worse, when you turn on the radio you are subjected to “Seasons in the Sun” and “I Will Always Love You.” According to Tom Reynolds, you’ve just heard 2 of the 52 most depressing songs ever written.

Reynolds’ hilarious I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You’ve Ever Heard is the perfect way to kill whatever holiday cheer or faith in humanity’s collective taste in music you might still have left. Cynical, snarky, and sarcastic, Reynolds’ irreverent take on these songs and why they’re so depressing is the funniest critique of songs since Greil Marcus’ Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (wait… he was being serious in that book)?

With chapter names like “I’m Trying to Be Profound and Touching, But Really Suck at It” and “If I Sing About Drugs, People Will Take Me Seriously,” Reynolds’ book cannot be accused of subtlety. Yet Reynolds’ writing style and approach rarely becomes grating or repetitive. Although he never says it directly, Reynolds’ humor takes as its starting point the fact that these songs are so depressing, first and foremost, because they’re so god-awful.

From there, Reynolds’ witty jabs take care of the rest, and no clichéd rock image is safe from Reynolds’ biting humor. Absurd lyrics are exposed (on Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”: “I don’t know of a single seventeen-year-old girl who would tell off the homecoming queen by saying she has debentures of quality; she’d call her a stuck-up bitch and key her Honda”); musical genres are mocked (on Evanescence’s “My Immortal”: “a song that does for piano ballads what the Hindenburg did for zeppelin travel”); and the flaws of supposed untouchable songs get a swift finger to the eye (on Springsteen’s “The River”: “I’d rather drag my scalp over a cheese grater than listen to it again”).

I can only make a few complaints about this book. Although Reynolds’ song choices are hard to argue against – “Macarthur Park,” “Mandy,” and “Let Her Cry” are indeed both depressing and depressingly bad – it’s a bit presumptuous for the author to call these the most depressing songs ever. No such list is complete without at least one, two, or five choice cuts from Lou Reed’s Berlin, which in my opinion still remains the single most dreary, bleak, and utterly humorless album ever recorded (think I’ll go listen to it now). I’m sure other music sickos out there can find many other songs worthy of consideration in such a list.

The other complaints I have are minor. Sometimes Reynolds comes across as just another VH1 or E! talking head, and can be too witty for his own good. I’m not sure I’d want to sit next to him on the subway. In addition, some of his jokes are very stale and should be relegated to the dustbin of humor at this point (another joke about how Robert Smith from the Cure looks like Edward Scissorhands? A critique of how MTV used to play music videos? Really? Still?).Those shortcomings aside, I Hate Myself and Want to Die is damn funny. Fans of comedy books, cynicism, and good and/or lousy music will find something to like in it. And with enough songs about misery, woe, death, drugs, and suicide, and why they are so appallingly depressing, it’s the perfect holiday gift. Tis the season, after all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Movie Review: P2

Sometimes theatrical trailers, word of mouth, and positive critical reviews cannot do a movie justice. Sometimes a movie is so powerful, inspiring, hilarious, or suspenseful that it must be seen in order to understand what all the rage is about. Such moments are what make the movie-going experience so memorable.

P2 is not such a movie. With a complete lack of humor or suspense, a laughably over-the-top villain, and a predictable ending, P2 is the worst pseudo-horror movie I’ve seen since the abysmal remake When a Stranger Calls. At least that movie featured one of the coolest movie names ever: Mandrakis. I lived off answering my phone by saying “Mandrakis residence” for weeks.

P2 stars Rachel Nichols as Angela, a hard-working gal who suffers work-related indignities in one of the upper floors of a typical New York skyscraper. On Christmas Eve, while her coworkers are wearing reindeer antlers and getting their drink on in the true holiday spirit, she’s stuck in her spacious office trying to resolve an obnoxious customer’s complaint. In between sputtering out Business Bullshit Bingo clichés and fending off unwanted drunken sexual advances from a male coworker, she’s desperately trying to make it to her parents’ home for a little Yuletide frivolity.

You see, Angela’s a good girl with good intentions, but gosh darn it, she’s always missing family commitments because of her demanding job. She’s also nice to her personal assistant, has no social life or boyfriend, and wears her hair in a tight bun, so we’re supposed to like her.

Things go from bad to worse for her when she finally leaves work and heads to (sinister music, please) parking garage level P2, where her car is parked. She turns the ignition, and in a revolutionary twist never before seen in the horror movie genre, her high-priced Germany luxury car won’t start. Eventually she wanders into to the security office, where she encounters Tom (played by Wes Bentley), the garage’s security attendant. He’s socially awkward, clearly sexually frustrated, wears a dweeby uniform, has a vicious pet dog named Rocky, and sports an outdated haircut, so clearly he’s up to no good. Of course, Angela misses all these clues.

After Tom unsuccessfully attempts to “help” Angela start her car (I am not speaking metaphorically here), she dejectedly calls a cab and waits in the office lobby for the cab to arrive. In another revolutionary twist never before seen in the horror movie genre, she finds that she cannot exit the building because the doors are locked. Despite her protestations, the poor cabbie drives off, and Angela finds herself again trapped in the parking garage on Christmas Eve.

From here, the garage’s lights go off and she’s quickly snatched by Tom, who takes her back to his office, complete with Rubik’s cube, tiny microwave, and Elvis Presley figurine (never a good sign in a movie), and chains her to a chair. When she finally wakes up (Tom drugged her, you see), Angela’s scantily clad in a slip and at the mercy of the security officer, who offers her food, wine, and a whole lot of awkward, thinly-veiled threatening questions. For his trouble, Tom gets a fork jammed in his back courtesy of the feisty Angela when she tries to escape. Ah yes, the seeds of true love always begin with a fork to the back.

Too many stereotypical horror movie staples to regurgitate here then ensue. Tom brutally murders the man who drunkenly accosted Angela in the elevator, in a scene with enough unnecessary gore to rival the Saw franchise. With a truly laughable catchphrase – “Thanks for ruining Christmas” – which Tom says to his various victims, Tom apparently has every psychosis in the book, and makes the villains from Dean Koontz’s absurd novels seem believable.

For added measure, Tom has random outbursts in which he screams violently and irrationally, with dialogue that sounds like a college freshman’s attempt at existentialist writing. And in one truly horrifying scene, Tom performs a karaoke version of Elvis Presley singing “Blue Sunday.” I am not making this up.

Eventually Angela escapes from the evil Tom’s nefarious clutches, pulls herself together, and manages to handcuff Tom to a crashed rental car (synopsis: game of chicken, Angela displays Girl Power, Tom the Super Villain gets cold feet and swerves, cars flip, Tom hobbles out of his car, Angela jams a shank into Tom’s eye). She’s about to walk out of the garage when Tom, because he’s such a bad guy, calls her a name that rhymes with “bunt.” And as the saying goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman called a name that rhymes with ‘bunt’.” Angela torches the car that Tom is cuffed to, and by extension, Tom. Massive explosion, Angela gimps outside into the snow of New York, cop cars and ambulances come speeding in her direction, end scene.

With needless gore, a truly absurd villain whose parents must have done a number on him, a complete lack of humor, and a paint-by-numbers plot, P2 will quickly be relegated to the dustbin of lousy, forgettable horror movies. Look for it on the USA channel in a few years.

But remember, if you find yourself lost in a parking garage late at night, be afraid. However, if you find yourself lost in a parking garage late at night and being pursued by folks with video cameras on Christmas Eve, be very, very afraid. It’s a sequel.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Waving the Rebel (er, White) Flag: Making Peace With Lynyrd Skynyrd Fans

Hardcore music fans, me included, take insults against their favorite artists personally. To prepare my wife for the recent Elvis Costello show in St. Louis (with Bob Dylan providing a disturbing letdown via garbled mumblings and frog-voiced croaking), I dropped a number of Costello songs on her a few weeks before the show. I was convinced she’d be overwhelmed and completely dig the music. I was as wrong as a “kiss your sister” contest in Arcadia, Louisiana. Every Elvis may indeed have his army, but she clearly wasn’t one of the soldiers. “If you say these are his best songs,” she said with something I detected as a bit of a mocking sneer, “I can’t imagine what the bad ones sound like. All of these sound like carnival songs.”

I was crushed and insulted. Her dissenting opinion registered like a cruel, hard knee to the crotch. I had deliberately steered her away from the crap of Costello (“She,” “God Give Me Strength,” and anything that featured Costello’s occasional excessive vibrato and sissy wimpyness), in favor of classic Costello (no, that doesn’t include North). How she couldn’t like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy!! was beyond me, and borderline grounds for divorce. I argued with her and tried to convince her she was missing The Point. But why did I care if she didn’t share my opinion? Although I couldn’t change her mind, it at least made me understand why some people take criticisms of their favorite performers to heart.

Within these HTML-enhanced pages of Blogcritics, I’ve dished out my share of shallow, petty, innocuous, childish, and fairly obvious insults about musicians, particularly those who have been around since the Hawley-Smoot Tariff was enacted.

These shots have generally been along the following lines: 1 – said musician is old; 2 – said musician is really, really old; 3 – said musician is really, really old and resembles a rotting corpse on stage; and 4 – said musician is really, really, really old, resembles a rotting corpse on stage, and is making a king’s ransom via exorbitant ticket prices.

When I started writing this blog, I expected most of the wounded, snotty, or violent email replies to be provided courtesy of the Dylanphiles of the world, who from previous experience tended to be extremely boorish and to interpret any critique of Heir Bobness as a declaration of war. Well, actually, I didn’t expect any replies at all; blogs are a lot like assholes these days. Everyone’s got one. And most of them stink.

To my surprise, most of these comments emailed under cover of night haven’t come from Dylanphiles. Perhaps that’s because the Dylanphiles don’t feel like they owe anyone a rebuttal at this point; they’ve chosen their horse and they’re betting on it until the, er, wheels fall off.

No, some of the most hilarious, angry, and downright snarky volleys have come from a surprising source: Lynyrd Skynyrd fans, with typical code names like suthernman, skynyrd-rulz-bitch, and bama-luves-the-guvner.

Now I will readily admit I thought all remaining Skynyrd fans were either incarcerated or in that great big trailer park in the sky. But, judging from the reactionary emails I’ve received in response to this posting, apparently I was wrong. Although this article was meant to be pure exaggeration and not taken seriously (not to mention the fact that it was a silly article and that I actually like some of Skynyrd’s honky music), something must have been lost in the translation.

So, motivated by own wounded feelings at my wife’s harsh dismissal of classic Costello and as a peace offering to those mullet-sporting, Wrangler-wearing, Southern Comfort-swilling Freebirds out there, I offer the following concessions:I don’t have any problem (excuse me, I ain’t got no) problem with Skynyrd as a band, even if I am a “Yankee blueblood bastard.”

Just to clarify: my ass and my face don’t serve the same purpose.
You’ve convinced me that “That Smell” is a landmark song. Please no more emails about how “even a jackass with a PC and sympathetic editors” can’t argue against the “bad assed awesomeness” of this song.
There was nothing redneck, gun-totin,’ or Suthern’-luvin’ about Skynyrd. We’ll just let album titles like Gimme Back My Bullets and Nuthin’ Fancy slide. I’ll even ignore song titles like “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and “Down South Jukin’.”
If it makes you feel better to think that Skynyrd’s use of the Confederate flag was purely meant as a display of Southern pride, and in no way showed blind ignorance or unimaginable stupidity, I’ll play along.
The bravest man I’ve ever met was this guy who brazenly wore a shirt that read, in bold giant black letters across the chest, “Your Favorite Band Sucks.” Of course, this was at a Built To Spill concert with the typical indie crowd, which is to say anyone who took offense to the shirt would direct their anger inward, in the form of classic EMO shoe-gazing.

However, as I exited the venue I noticed a shady fellow in a torn Skynyrd t-shirt eyeing the guy like Robert E. Lee spying the Union army at Second Bull Run. And something told me he had a Free Bird-sized chip on his shoulder about that guy’s t-shirt.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Concertgoer's Guide to Appropriate Behavior

The timid finger gently taps the back of the dancing concertgoer, currently engaged in a grotesque pelvic thrust that is part macarena, part electric slide, and all horror.

The concertgoer spins around as if shook from a dream, to hear a kind request to sit down so that the face of the timid finger can see the performer on the stage. The dancer answers by gruffly threatening future physical abnormalities and by telling the person to do something to herself that is physically impossible.

The dancer spins back around and continues his boogie-woogie-woogie. The woman sits in her seat dejectedly. Her seat happens to be a wheelchair.

This, of course, makes the dancing man the world’s biggest asshole.

I witnessed this at the recent Elvis Costello/Bob Dylan October 2007 show in St. Louis.

Only the intervention of a security guard convinced the dancer to at least move to the aisle, so that he could continue his gyrations without blocking the woman’s view. It also led to me to ponder the question of what qualifies as appropriate behavior for a music concert, since I have seen too many cases where norms of human decency have been scuttled in favor of behavior that would rival that of our knuckle-dragging ancestors.

The fact that this type of thuggish behavior has mostly happened at concerts by “established” acts (Dylan, Costello, R.E.M), and not at shows by less-known indie acts (The National, Silver Jews) is a topic probably best left for another day.

What follows is my humble attempt to create a modern day Hammurabi Code for Concertgoers. Minus the punishment by dismemberment and disembowelment.

Reserved Seating

You’ve just thrown down hundreds of dollars and donated several pints of blood in order to afford a couple Neil Young tickets, yet you aren’t exactly thrilled to be sitting at the top of the mountain:

Your reserved seat number is not a suggestion or a general approximation of where to sit. If your ticket says Nosebleed Balcony Seat 236, your posterior should be drawn like a magnet to the confines of that seat’s dimensions.
If you are occupying someone else’s seat and you get called out on it, don’t feign surprise and act like you were unaware you parked it in the wrong spot. Your hangdog expression and slow ascent into the wilds of less cozy environs within the venue gives you away every time.
People occasionally leave their seats to get a drink or buy $50 tour sweatshirts. When they come back to their seat, you shouldn’t be sitting there like a rock-n-roll Goldilocks.
General Admission

General admission is always a dicey proposition. You have a great chance to get in the pit and get close to the musician you’ve been stalking for years. Yet as your fellow concertgoers jockey for prime real estate before the show begins, violent elbows to your spleen are a real concern. Here’s how to handle this situation:

If you are a male under 5’9’’, forget about it. You will be muscled out of your spot in the pit; it is a Darwinian certainty.
Sitting on the floor of the pit until the show begins is not a good strategy. Some concertgoers equate sitting heads with steps. And like a turtle hiding inside its shell, eventually you must come out. When you do, that winged predator with sharp teeth you were hiding from will still be there.
Tables with either chairs or stools at a general admission show are the equivalent of water from a cactus for a man starving in the desert. Do not hesitate, do not look around for a better spot, and do not be fooled by the mirage of a near-empty orchestra pit. Grab the table and bunker down. Do not leave it unguarded under any circumstances.
Bodies in Motion (Dancing and Standing vs. Sitting)

You’ve impressed your date with third-row center seats, but she’s not yet aware of your Travolta-like tendency to treat the venue as part of your personal discotheque. What’s a guy to do?

Consider the performer:
If you are seeing Johnny’s Disco Explosion, go gonzo. There are no laws, rules, or regulation. It’s Thunderdome.
If you are seeing Johnny Q. Folkie, part your butt in your seat, hold hands with your neighbors, and join in when he sings “We Shall Overcome.”
If you are seeing something in between, commit hard in one direction. Either remain rigidly seated even though the other 19,999 people in the arena are shake-shake-shaking all over like frustrated wannabe go-go dancers, or, while everyone else is moping and staring at their shoes, perform your own rhythmic gyrations from the time the show starts until the performer walks off stage. Or until security throws you out. Whichever comes first.
Those around you should not need to drive a flag into the ground to claim their space as part of their familial birthright. Likewise, your raised arms, flailing legs, and shaking ass should not intrude upon any concertgoer with whom you are not intimately familiar.
Nicotine Consumption and Beyond

Your reformed smoker friends constantly tell you to drop the habit. Yet you cannot get the full concert experience without a few puff-puffs. Although your lungs are crying on the inside of you, you need a few lung darts to have a truly enjoyable time. With public smokers becoming pariahs, what’s a dedicated Marlboro man to do?

If it’s a smoking venue, puff away until you can’t puff any more. For extra spite, blow your smoke in the direction of the 6’3’’ jerk that muscled you out off your spot near the pit’s railing (see above).
If it’s a non-smoking venue, you will likely be relegated to an inconspicuous, dimly-lit, and borderline-dangerous alley near a side door to the venue. As you shorten your lifespan along with your fellow cigarette cronies, take this opportunity to remember the old days when non-smokers didn’t complain about minor things like secondhand smoke, their personal comfort, or their desire to not smell like Joe Camel.
A popular alternative to smoking in the great wide open at non-smoking venues is the classic play of smoking in the bathroom. Not only does this say that you won’t be relegated to an alley, it also shows that you are a true worshipper at the altar of God Nicotine. A word of warning though: this approach is the equivalent of running the gauntlet .Those pesky male pissers tend to be uncompromising with anything that keeps them from reaching the porcelain goddess, especially in dire situations.
If your chemical proclivities extend to, technically speaking, illegal substances, follow these simple guidelines to maximize your illicit enjoyment and to avoid an awkward 2 am call to your parents from a holding cell:
You are not hanging out in your basement room with your friends Slappy and Jimmy C-Nuts after your parents have gone to sleep. Be discreet about it.
If you are holding and Security approaches you, do not panic and throw your stash in the lap of the stranger sitting next to you.
Liquid Consumption

You’re a hard-working white collar dude, but sometimes you want to cut loose with half a dozen strawberry-almond flavored microbrews, to show your fellow concertgoers that you’re not a total suit. Before you or your significant other get blitzed at the Police reunion show on drinks that all end in “tini” and drunkenly croak out “Roxanne” in your own key, observe these rules:

Remember that beautiful duet of “I Shall Be Released” that Dylan and Costello sang at Tramps in 1999? How you couldn’t believe your luck to be in the front row to witness such a moment? How the crowd was pin-drop silent and just knew they were witnessing something amazing that would defy later description? No? Then you drank too much.
Remember hitting on the blonde bartender, challenging the bouncer to a mixed martial arts fight, and screaming hysterically for Kelly Clarkson to sing “that one song from the radio?” Yes? Then you didn’t drink enough.
Performances come and go, bands come and go, but the memory of an unplanned concert vomit on someone’s Chuck Taylors lasts forever.
Waiting in Line

You’ve got general admission tickets to see your favorite musician for the 47th time tonight. To ensure you get close enough to him to see the wrinkles in his catcher’s mitt-like face, you’ve lined up outside the venue six hours before the doors open. You’ve got no one for company except the voices in your own head. You’ve got some time on your hands, so remember these rules:

Eventually people will line up behind you. Do not snarl, bark, or constantly look over your shoulder in paranoia at them. They mean you no harm. Besides, they are piss-fear afraid of you.
Sometimes people will need to walk past you. They are not trying to steal your spot. Some of them aren’t even going to the show. There is no need to eye f-blankety-blankety-blank them.
Sometimes security moves the line to a new starting point, for no reason other than their sadistic pleasure. Shake your fist at the sky, blame cruel fate, whatever gets you through, but the bottom line is that you’d better run like hell. Your previous position as king has been suddenly usurped.
Talking During Shows/Other Random Noises

For some reason, we Americans love to spend large sums of money on concerts and then talk through the buggers. You’ve done this in the past but want to repent; you still have a sneaking suspicion that your constant gum-bumping precipitated the riot at the Guns-N-Roses concert in St. Louis years ago. Follow these simple rules and you shall be granted forgiveness:

If someone smaller than you tells you to quit talking, ignore him. If someone bigger than you tell you to quit talking, listen to him.
Opening acts are people too. Give them a chance before continuing your conversation about how opening acts aren’t people and almost always stink.
Your brand new, super-shiny Motorola V-1,000,000,000 is pretty cool. It’s Web-enabled, is smaller than your pinky finger, washes your car, feeds your children, and when you’re feeling frisky, its vibrate function packs a decent punch. But no one wants to hear your Bette Midler ringtone as Springsteen and Max Weinberg’s Semi-Retired Superstars play “Rosalita” for the 700th time.
Remember that shows are taped with increasing frequency nowadays. Unless you want your conversation about your asshole boss recorded for posterity, keep your voice down.
You’ve followed Dylan across the country since 1963, screaming at every show for him to play “Let Me Die In My Footsteps.” Give it up. It’s not gonna happen.
Behavior in Outdoor Venues

These shows aren’t for the uninitiated. And if you have a heart condition, be warned. Like scaling Mount Everest, surviving outdoor concerts and festivals requires a certain kind of mental fortitude, along with a blatant disregard for sanity, hygiene, flushable toilets, and other key pieces needed for human life to flourish. So before brazenly heading off to that White Snake/Poison double bill under the stars, observe the following:

Urinating in a port-a-potty is gross. Urinating on the lawn where people sit is grosser. Use the port-a-potty.
Not everyone shares your affinity for mud. The mud people are not hard to find. Find them and fling away.
That early 20s-something girl who sported four-inch bangs and flashed Bret Michaels at the Poison concert in 1987 still lives inside you. Please warn everyone around you before your now-undersized shirt is tossed into the ether.
It’s July in Chicago. It’s Hades hot. You’re hungry and tired. The “chill tent” looks like a sick room. You’re surrounded by thousands of people who all resemble Will Oldham and smell like an unholy mixture of sunscreen, weed, and corn dogs. This is the true festival experience. Enjoy it.
Common human decency should dictate how to behave at a concert. And everyone should drive the speed limit. When that decency deteriorates into a mixture of chaos, anarchy, and baby boomers breaking out “Heart of Gold” in a drunken frenzy, the guidelines above could help out in a pinch.

Then again, the 300-pound guy in the Metallica Kill ‘Em All shirt who’s now sitting in your seat hasn’t ever really cared much for rules.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan - October 22, 2007, St. Louis, MO

As demonstrated by Elvis Costello at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis on Monday night, follow these simple steps to upstage the headlining musical legend:

Enunciate into the microphone in a language that approximates English. Bonus points if your voice can be heard and your words can be easily understood both when singing near the microphone and when singing unamplified for dramatic effect.
Deliver the songs with passion and energy; squeeze an ungodly amount of music and noise out of only a variety of sound-distorted guitars.
Mix in a few excellent new songs to compliment the older material.
Acknowledge at least once that you are aware of the city, state, planet, or epoch you are currently performing in. This can be something as simple as a “how are ya?” to a story about advice your father gave you.

All kidding aside, it is the equivalent of a musical sin to criticize Bob Dylan nowadays; the man’s a musical genius whose concert tours (1966 Europe, 1975-1976 Rolling Thunder, and too many others to count) and recorded output (Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, and, uh, Shot Of Love) speak for themselves and crush most other artists’ masterpieces like a grape. His last three studio albums are outstanding. He’s been on a critical and creative high for the last ten years. Long after all these peon hack bloggers like myself have sprung off this mortal coil, people will still be listening to, writing about, and over-analyzing Dylan’s lyrics and life.

Some of my favorite concert memories are of Dylan shows. In 1999 my then-girlfriend (and now-wife, also along for the bumpy ride for this latest Dylan show) and I saw Dylan with Paul Simon at Riverport Amphitheatre; their spooky duet of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is something I’ll never forget, pending senility. In 2004, my brother and I spent three nights waiting outside in the cold March rain for early admission to see Dylan at the Pageant, and the highlights from those shows are too many to name (I’ll take “Senor” and “Man In The Long Black Coat” as my favorites).

But none of this changes the fact that Costello stole the show on Monday night. In an intense, far-too-short solo performance that saw Costello switch guitars nearly every song and pound and hack away at the instrument with fury, the singer covered the usual live standards like “Radio Sweetheart,” “Veronica,” and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” none of which sounded stale or color-by-numbers. A reworked “Alison” brought out the sinister, stalker undertones of the song, and “Bedlam” was given a savage treatment that surpassed the version from The Delivery Man.

New songs “Sulfur To Sugar Cane” and “Down Among The Wine And Spirits” were solid as well, and have a definite topical bent to them (maybe the next Costello album will be titled Another Side of Elvis Costello). Costello concluded with “The Scarlet Tide,” Costello’s and T-Bone Burnette’s song from the Civil War epic Cold Mountain. Updated with two lines that reference the current mess in Iraq, the ballad hushed the audience (except for one jackass in the balcony section who shouted uncontrollably for about a minute about chicken feathers or something). Costello ended the song unamplified, his voice easily heard throughout the theatre. The effect was chilling.

If the night ended there, I would have gone home happy. As the house lights went up and the crew began re-assembling the stage for Dylan and his band, the usual pre-Dylan performance things began to happen: Dylanphiles materialized from thin air, sporting their recently-purchased $40 t-shirts. Bootlegs were traded in the bathroom. The horde began to move toward the front of the stage, despite the entire show being reserved seating. I’ve come to accept the fact that for many of Dylan’s more “dedicated” fans, assigned seat numbering is a mere suggestion. When the music starts, you can expect the reserved area to quickly be swallowed up; getting someone’s dancing ass thrust into your face is practically a rite of passage for Dylan concerts.

When Dylan and his band opened with “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” the rapturous applause was deafening and expected; Dylan’s fans are by and large an energetic, boisterous, and perhaps loyal-to-a-fault bunch. Awkward pelvic thrusts and shoulder gyrations could be seen throughout the theatre, many of the dances resembling a two-hour long epileptic fit.

But something else was immediately apparent: both the sound mix and Dylan’s singing were far below par (and yes, I’m aware that Dylan has never had a “traditional beautiful voice”). The mix was essentially a giant a wall of sound; it was far closer to sounding like My Bloody Valentine than Bob Dylan. When Dylan’s voice could be heard over the murk, the words were largely unintelligible; even a few die-hard lifers seated near me readily admitted that they couldn’t make out the words. Dylan’s voice itself was not in good shape either, alternating between a wheeze and a timid bark.

Blame the lousy mix if you want; perhaps Dylan was trying to sing above the sludge, but it’s undeniable that he was inaudible for most of the performance. When the words could be distinguished, his odd cadence of “three words/pause/three words/pause/repeat” didn’t always work. For every song where this vocal styling succeeded (“It Ain’t Me, Babe” was a high point), another song would suffer from the phrasing. “Visions Of Johanna” and “Summer Days” were victims of this approach, as both songs plodded under the odd phrasing, limping toward the finish line.

I don’t think Dylan mailed the performance in, even if he rarely faced the audience and only briefly acknowledged the audience’s presence. By now, those familiar with Dylan’s live show accept the fact that Dylan will follow his muse live, and the concertgoer can form an opinion from that. The musician should be credited for trying to find new ways to present his material, some of which debuted during the Bronze Age. The obvious risk is that sometimes this succeeds beautifully, and other times it fails miserably. Unfortunately, Dylan’s performance in St. Louis fell into this latter category.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Patient Isn't Breathing: R.E.M.'s Live Album, Stipe's Preening, and Keeping the Faith

Think back to those heady years of 1981-1996, when declaring yourself an R.E.M. fan was a sign of true musical taste, and not an open invitation to ridicule, mockery, and verbal humiliation. In those days, the band delivered great album after great album, some of which are still timeless kick-ass classics. They seemed to tour constantly; great bootlegs confirm that the band live was truly something extraordinary. Hip music critics and the fledgling college radio movement loved them. Michael Stipe wasn’t bald and didn’t present himself as some sort of pixie space alien. Mike Mills wasn’t donning sequin jackets. Peter Buck wasn’t getting into drunken altercations with flight attendants on airplanes. And Bill Berry was in the band. Even when the band signed to Warner Bros. and senior citizens were humming the melody to “Losing My Religion,” Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe had managed to achieve mainstream success (and a major label payout) without losing much of their indie credibility or initial fan base.

However, at some unknown point in 1997, the space-time continuum veered horribly off course and the mighty beast known as R.E.M. was replaced by a vacuum-of-suck imposter. After the awesome New Adventures In Hi-Fi, what followed over the next decade was a series of the patient-isn’t-breathing albums like Up, Reveal, and Around The Sun. The albums were long on pseudo Brian Wilson melodies, bleeps, blops, zips, zeeps, and other little noises; it sounded like the band had listened to OK Computer constantly and could only produce pale imitations of the Radiohead masterpiece. Mysterious and textured lyrics were replaced by overly-direct lyrics that were either painfully mundane (“Why not smile/you’ve been sad for a while” from, you guessed it, “Why Not Smile”) or complete nonsense (“It’s easier to leave than to be left behind/leaving was never my proud” from “Leaving New York”). What exactly is a “proud?”

All of this contributes to make the creatively titled Live album a truly puzzling and ultimately another non-essential entry in the R.E.M. catalog. After a decade in the desert, fans searching for signs of life from the band must still keep wandering. Consisting of two audio discs and one DVD of a 2005 show in Dublin, the release is long on vacuum-of-suck R.E.M. songs and short on the good stuff.

It’s not that the performance itself is bad; even though Stipe’s preening and posing as shown on the DVD gets obnoxious after a while (Michael, we get it already. You’re short, bald, and you wear some sort of makeup mask across your eyes for unknown reasons). As a live act, R.EM. has been around long enough to know what works in a live setting. The songs included are performed well, though few of the renditions stray too far from the album versions. Nevertheless, the album is disappointing for a few reasons.

First, as the first complete R.EM. show to be released on CD, the choice of a concert from 2005 is bizarre. It’s like showing someone a clip of Willie Mays at the end of his career; there could be occasional flashes of brilliance, but mostly it’s old age, bum body parts, and diminished skill. In musical terms, it’s the equivalent of Columbia releasing a Bob Dylan live album that relies entirely on songs from Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, and Under the Red Sky. With all the great shows from the “early days” that circulate on bootleg, the first live R.E.M. should have been something much better.

This release also suffers from the song selection; many Around the Sun stink bombs are included, but no tunes from classic albums Murmur or Fables of the Reconstruction make an appearance. In addition, Reckoning is represented only by the by-rote “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” and only a reworked “Cuyahoga” from Lifes Rich Pageant is performed. I am by no means suggesting that R.E.M. should turn into a nostalgia act and only serve up a platter of the older songs, but when their latest material is the musical equivalent of a steaming turd in the punchbowl, a listener can’t help notice how inferior this material sounds compared to the older stuff.

By no means am I some Luddite who wants the band to record Murmur Part II. If a band doesn’t keep trying new tricks in the studio and performing new material on the road, said band quickly turns into an irrelevant oldies act. The rub of course is that in R.E.M.’s case, the later material simply doesn’t come close to rivaling the brilliance of anything from Chronic Town to New Adventures In Hi-Fi.

It would be easy enough to declare that R.E.M has lost it for good, that fame, money, and comfortable middle age (and the departure of uber-drummer Bill Berry) have plunged the band into an irreversible descent into mediocrity. Let’s face it: every statement of “I’m an R.E.M. fan” is now inevitably quickly followed up by any one of the caveats:

Well, yeah, they seem to have lost something.
I don’t know why Stipe does that paint thing with his face.
Yes, they’re still around. And yes, the last few albums have been kinda lousy.
Please don’t hit me.

But I’m not throwing in the towel just yet. Like many, I’ve been a fan for far too long to believe that the band isn’t capable of again producing challenging and exciting music. Judging by the new songs that the band has performed live recently, there is still reason for R.E.M. fans to remain hopeful that a resurgence is possible. Just don’t expect that resurgence to start with the Live album.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Music Review: Nick Drake's Family Tree, Should I Be Listening To This?

Nick Drake’s posthumous recorded output now surpasses the number of albums he released while on this mortal coil. If the well has not been wrung dry, it’s at least close to being empty of everything except backwash; if any posthumous Drake album is released in the next few years, it most likely will be a duets album with Tupac Shakur.

Family Tree is the latest posthumous Drake release (as of this writing). The album consists primarily of lo-fi (though listenable) recordings from Drake’s parent’s home at Far Leys and recordings made by Drake while studying in France. A duet with Drake’s sister Gabrielle and two songs written and performed by his mother (it’s a family tree, get it?) round out the album. Although most of the songs have long been available on bootleg, this marks the first official release of this material.

It is doubtful that casual Nick Drake fans (if such a thing actually exists) will give this album repeated plays. Many of the tracks are short and unfinished, and the sound is far from perfect. This is, bottom line, an archival piece geared toward hardcore Drake fans. The irony of course is that most such fans have probably heard this material before.

However, this release does have some strengths; for example, it shows Drake at a very early stage in his musical development, before Five Leaves Left had not yet even been recorded. Although early versions of “Way To Blue” and “Day Is Done” from that album are not particularly enlightening, it is nice to hear these early versions, even if they are little more than rough sketches. Another strength of the album is that it reveals Drake’s musical influences at the time, ranging from a bunch of old dead dudes most people probably haven’t heard of (Jackson C. Frank, Blind Boy Fuller, and Robin Frederick), to a living dude who some people have heard of (Bert Jansch), to a living dude everyone has heard of (Bob Dylan). The foundation of the Nick Drake sound (gentle guitar, soft voice, natch) can be heard on this release.

The version of folk standard and Joan Baez-abused “All My Trials” is the most striking performance included. Usually sung as an optimistic ode to liberation, Drake’s performance is quiet, reserved, and defeated. Coupled with Drake’s well documented mental issues and early death, the lyrics “all my trials Lord/will soon be over” take on a far more sinister meaning.

Nevertheless, there is something inherently “dirty” about listening to this release. The listener cannot help but feel a certain amount of guilt in hearing something that was clearly never meant to be heard by anyone outside Drake’s family circle (it’s also possible these recordings had an intended audience of only Drake). Of course, the musician’s tragic death at age 26 adds to this feeling. It’s extremely difficult to approach these songs from outside the context of the musician’s death. At times listening to this album feels like covertly reading a teenage girl’s diary (or blog or e-diary, or whatever kids do nowadays), staring at a woman’s cleavage from across the room, or slowly driving past a car crash.

The commercial release of this album sometimes also smacks of crass opportunism, at a time when Drake’s actual albums are in danger of being buried under an avalanche of mediocre posthumous releases. Drake’s sister Gabrielle even acknowledges as much in the liner notes, written as a letter to her brother: “But now, I am endorsing the publication of an album that I am not at all sure you would have sanctioned.” Like reading the previously released journals of Kurt Cobain, the listener cannot help but sometimes feel like an unwanted intruder when listening to this album. The broader question, which can either be a good one for debate or pure philosophical BS, is whether the general public has a “right” to hear such music. On the one hand, the Nick Drake estate has made the material available for purchase; any blame for whether this album “should” be released could fall squarely of the feet of the Nick Drake estate. On the other hand, many listeners will finish this album and probably feel a little guilty at having listened to it.

Hardcore Drake fans or those lovelorn, melancholy types who still haunt coffeehouses, mumble under their strumming guitars, and stare at their shoes will likely not be disappointed by this release. Those unfamiliar with Nick Drake should still start with Pink Moon and work their way backwards to Bryter Layter and Five Leaves Left. Regardless of how many posthumous Nick Drake releases hit the market, those three albums will remain Drake’s lasting legacy.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Suffering from Bruce-lash

Suffering from Bruce-lash
Written by Eric Whelchel
Published October 11, 2007
See also:
» Music Review: Vic Chesnutt - North Star Deserter
» Music Review: Justice - Cross
» Enter to Win : Johnny Fiasco CDs and T-shirts

I’m suffering from an acute case of Brucelash. Springsteen and the "Yeesh They’re Looking Pretty Old Band" (sorry, I mean “the E Street Band”) are seemingly everywhere lately, in support of their recently released and much ballyhooed album, Magic. In the last couple weeks, Bruce and the band have appeared on the Matt Lauer Snarky Time Happy Hour (also known as the Today Show), and Springsteen also appeared on 60 Minutes in a carefully crafted interview that reinforced the familiar Springsteen public persona (portrayal of said musician as an approachable and humorous man-of-the-people despite millionaire status? Check. Musings on what it means to be an American? Check. References to working class background and childhood in New Jersey? Check).

The critical response to the album has been extremely positive. On this very website, several contributors have sung their praises for the album on a few occasions, though I suspect that they might be/could be/maybe could be/just a little bit possibly are somewhat predisposed to like the album regardless of its actual content. Even the usually difficult to please Pitchfork gave the album a positive review, and that website usually saves its most enthusiastic praise for the following: anything Radiohead does, any band that features a Japanese woman sputtering out sentence fragments over music that sounds like a 1980s sitcom theme song, or any band whose name is either a declarative command or could be mistaken for a line of poetry from a female college student. As I checked out the album at a local retail store, a store employee approached me, and in breathless, hushed tones, told me the album was one of the greatest things he’d ever heard. His praise was so excessive I felt like I was holding a sacred relic upon which I should not even look, lest its sacred glow permanently blind my eyes.

Yet I still cannot bring myself to seal the deal and buy the album. I think I know why.

First, all this effusive praise is vaguely familiar: similar plaudits were lauded upon Bruce and the boys when The Rising was released a few years ago. Based on these reviews, I purchased the album and was supremely underwhelmed. Listening to it again recently, what surprised me most is how many of the songs sound dated; they suffer from a production approach that somehow seems both sterile and over-saturated at the same time. Looking back on the album now, I’m convinced the positive response for the album can be attributed to both an initial enthusiastic response to Springsteen and the band releasing an album together after many years away from each other, and, on a more serious note, because the album was seen as one of the earliest artistic works that addressed (however implicitly) the events and after-effects of 9/11.

The second issue that’s preventing me from buying the album and joining the angel band in song is the Santana factor. Let me explain. In 1999, Santana released Supernatural, which was touted as his best album since the Paleolithic era. The album caught on like wildfire. It sold 9,999,999,999,999 copies. It was required listening in grade schools across the country. It won countless awards and was anointed as the most important work of artistry since The Great Gatsby. It landed the musician a soft drink endorsement. It revealed that “the dude from matchbox 20” had an actual name. Everyone was enthralled with Santana, the super-cool aura he exuded, and especially, his truly remarkable porn-stache.

Of course, the mania around Magic has reached nowhere near the level of hysteria for Supernatural. The marketing push given to Springsteen’s album doesn’t come close to the push that Supernatural received (you couldn’t breathe air or fear Y2K in 1999 without seeing Santana on the television or hearing him on the radio). Still, I can’t help but think that some of the touchy-feely humping being thrust upon this album is at least partially a result of a careful marketing plan (select interviews, positive press, and a full-scale arenas-only world tour), and partially the result of many fans’ desire to see Springsteen and the E Street Band back together again, reliving their (here it comes!) glory days.

The final factor that’s currently preventing me from throwing down some baksheesh for this album is the simple fact that I can count the number of Brendan O’Brien-produced albums that I like on approximately, oh, three fingers.

Finger 1: Devils. Finger 2: and. Finger 3: Dust. I will readily admit there are many albums produced by O’Brien that I’ve never heard; I’m sure I’ll get around to checking out Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert by Raging Slab and Waste of Skin by Spike 1000 one of these days. However, of the albums I’ve heard, I’ve always found them overproduced and overpolished. O’Brien’s albums remind me of someone who smiles all the time; sure, it’s reassuring and non-threatening, but after a while, it’s just obnoxious and annoying. Then again, maybe I’m turning into a cranky music snob and cannot see the merits of Drops of Jupiter by Train or Significant Other by Limp Bizkit.

I want to buy Magic, give it a full listen, and say that it’s among Springsteen and the band’s best, on par with Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. At their best, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are a force capable of making grown men weep, making the sky rain, and making the bad girls go good. I’m sure at some point in the coming weeks my Brucelash will end and I’ll buy the album. But right now I’m having a difficult time convincing myself this thing is something more than, at best, an overrated album, or, at worst, a polished turd whose stink is being masked by critics’ and fans’ enthusiasm to see Springsteen and the band rocking again like it’s 1978.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Music Review: Vic Chesnutt - North Star Deserter

“My soul in its special hell of wet mortal limits/perpetually thirsting,” Vic Chesnutt sings in “Glossolalia,” the second song from his recently released and truly excellent album, North Star Deserter. And that’s one of the more optimistic songs. Over the course of the album, Chesnutt examines themes of loss, decay, and dread, many times from the point of view of either an observer or participant looking back at the sad wreckage. The result is an often harrowing album that is Chesnutt’s best work since About To Choke.

A feeling of resignation runs throughout the album. The characters in these songs, helpless to undo either past events or change the course of their current situations, are resigned to accept the outcome as a foregone conclusion, and with little resistance. In “Everything I Say,” Chesnutt uses the image of a barn (a loaded image that should get psychology fans really hot and bothered) to arrive at a wry and bleak outlook on the past: “The barn fell down/since I saw it last/it’s rubble now/well so much for the past.” The song “Over” is less poetic but shares a similar theme. “It was fun while it lasted/now it’s all blown away/everything blows away someday/everything turns to dust/big ol’ mountains do/as well as everyone of us,” Chesnutt sings.

Cheery stuff, to be sure, yet the songs avoid slipping into overly maudlin or self-pitying nihilistic nonsense. A lot of that can be attributed to Chesnutt’s voice, at times creaky and frail, and at other times steady and confident. Through it all, Chesnutt’s voice carries the authority of someone who’s seen it before and is not bullshitting. Chesnutt also uses his trademark gallows humor to prevent listeners from staring at their shoes and sobbing quietly while listening to the album. “It’s OK, you can take Vioxx/and it’s OK, you can get a quadruple bypass/and then keep on keeping on,” Chesnutt sings in “You Are Never Alone,” perhaps the most sardonic and humorous song he’s recorded since “Little Vacation.”

The most noticeable departure in North Star Deserter from Chesnutt’s previous albums is the sheer amount of loud and aggressive noise that characterizes some of the songs. With collaborations on this album with members of Fugazi and Godspeed! You Black Emperor, perhaps that’s inevitable. “Debriefing,” with its holy-hell racket of guitars and martial drumbeats, should jolt Chesnutt fans who still view him as the solo acoustic folkie who recorded Little. Likewise, “Glossolalia,” with a melody written by (whisper now) indie hero Jeff Mangum, features a wild mix of viola, violin, and cello that sounds like nothing Chesnutt has ever recorded.

North Star Deserter is littered with images of irreversible loss; like some of Chesnutt’s previous albums, it often deals in ugly endings and images. Even the more pastoral songs reach conclusions that are brutal and harsh, and the consolations offered are small. “Tears do evaporate/but oh so slowly like piss on a toilet seat,” Chesnutt sings in “Marathon.” Certainly it is one of Chesnutt’s more challenging albums. It is also one of his best.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Music Review: Bob Dylan - Dylan (Three-CD Compilation)

I’ll be completely honest here: there is absolutely no reason for another Bob Dylan “best of” compilation. Except, of course, for the obvious financial reasons: such packages cost next to nothing for Columbia to produce, there is a considerable segment of Dylan “completists” who will buy every release of Dylan material no matter how many times it has already been repackaged and recycled, and maybe, just maybe, a few new listeners will discover Dylan for the first time. Of course, this last group primarily consists of approximately four people in the United States and a remote band of primitive hunters living in the Andes Mountains who have never heard of Bob Dylan, but no matter. Nearly 120 years after his debut album, Dylan remains one of Columbia’s major cash cows.

The latest Dylan compilation is creatively titled Dylan (and no, it’s not a reissue of that infamous self-sabotaging album released decades ago). The obvious knee-jerk reaction to any such collection is to dismiss it as an easy cash grab, a cynical way for the music label to feast on the musician’s core fan base and their compulsion to either “support the artist” or to own the musician’s complete catalog. In an era where album sales continue to decline and music packages as artifacts are becoming, at best, part of a small niche market, such releases often come across as thoughtless, hasty, and low-cost ways for the record labels to combat these factors, at the expense of the artist’s loyal/dedicated/psychotic/deranged fans. Unfortunately, Dylan fits this bill.

To be fair, this compilation does have some qualities that might justify it as a purchase for those who get all hot and bothered by album packaging, those who are either unfamiliar with Dylan’s work, or those who only own the “classic” Dylan albums, like Blonde On Blonde, Blood On the Tracks, and, um, Empire Burlesque. For example, the deluxe “limited edition” version (in this case, “limited” means “limited to the number of copies Columbia can sell”) has attractive packaging, including a red cloth-covered box, CDs designed like vinyl albums, a nice booklet with decent liner notes and photos, and several postcards. However, it should also be noted that many of the photos seem vaguely familiar to those included in other Dylan compilations and books. And while this packaging is quite good, it is sometimes eerily reminiscent of Scorpio’s glorious Genuine Live 1966 box set. Nothing more than a coincidence I’m sure; Columbia would never “borrow” ideas from scumbag bootleggers. Right?

To Columbia’s credit, the prices set for this release are fairly reasonable; the deluxe version can be had for under $40 (for those without connections, advance copies for review on blog sites require a fair amount of begging, pleading, and soul-selling at a to-remain-nameless retail outlet). In addition, Columbia is also offering a single-disc version at a substantially lower cost. For those who only want to date occasionally for amusement, I suppose.

This is where praise for this compilation ends; the shortcomings and faults are significant and ultimately make this release an overall disappointment and a non-essential release. The first and most obvious drawback is that the majority of these songs have already been made available on previous Dylan greatest hits packages. Sure, many of Dylan’s best songs are represented here (but for chrissakes, why does the god-awful “Silvio” constantly show up on these Dylan compilations, and where is “Visions of Johanna?”), but many of these have been represented on Dylan compilations since Biograph. We can all bow and genuflect and put these songs on the cultural and historical pedestal where they belong, but at the end of the day, “Like a Rolling Stone” sounds the same no matter how many times it’s reissued and repackaged.

The second problem with this release is that some of the song choices are odd at best. Certainly, it is difficult to include all of Dylan’s best songs over three discs. The man has been recording music since William Howard Taft was president, so some omissions are probably unavoidable. Nevertheless, it’s hard to understand why some of the more slight/throwaway songs were included, including the previously-mentioned and loathed “Silvio,” “All I Really Want To Do,” “On a Night Like This,” and my personal least favorite Dylan song included in this compilation, “Everything Is Broken” (which in my vision of Hell is endlessly played on repeat). The remaining songs are all solid choices, though Columbia missed an opportunity to include some of Dylan’s overlooked or more challenging tunes (“Desolation Row” is just one example).

The final and biggest flaw with this release is that all three discs contain nothing but previously-released material. This is why Dylan fans who have been held by their ankles and had their pants pockets turned inside out by Columbia time and time again can rightly piss and moan about Dylan. In addition, the argument that this release is best for new Dylan fans also seems specious at best; most of the songs included can easily be found on other still-in-print compilations, at a similar or lower price.

With the massive amount of quality unreleased Dylan material that currently only circulates among the dedicated hoard of Dylan collectors and traders, it is difficult to make a rational argument that justifies another Dylan compilation such as this one. Although Columbia has in recent years improved in documenting and releasing archival Dylan material through its Bootleg Series release, there remains a staggering discrepancy between such releases and the color-by-numbers Dylan compilations that are still in print. Hardcore Dylan fans are by and large a collective hungry beast; they devour Dylan material like vultures to a rotting carcass. There have been enough Dylan compilations; now is as good a time as any for Columbia to focus on Dylan material that isn’t already officially available.

Both hardcore Dylanphiles and casual Dylan fans will likely already have these songs in their music collections. Fancy packaging and pretty pictures aside, it’s hard to recommend Dylan for purchase, despite the reasonable price tag. With so much unreleased Dylan material still locked in the vaults or only available via non-official routes, another easy compilation of previously-released material comes across as nothing more than a quick cash grab.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Satire: St. Louis Music Scene Found Dead; Several Suspects Under Investigation

In a startling development, the St. Louis Music Scene was found dead this morning, near the Pageant concert nightclub on Delmar Boulevard. Although the cause of death has yet to be determined, authorities speculate the death was possibly caused by St. Louis' appalling number of frustrated male concert-going go-go dancers, the number of bloated 1980s hair bands and androgynous male bands targeting pre-pubescent kids that thrive in the city, or finally, Richard "Dick" Reamer of Creve Coeur, MO.

Homicide detectives are currently pursuing the St. Louis male concert-going population as their strongest suspect. "We've received numerous substantiated reports that this suspect has engaged in various illicit and disgusting activities, including grotesque seated pelvic dancing thrusts during the recent Richard Thompson acoustic concert," stated Detective Fuller Johnson, lead investigator for the case. "For chrissakes, how can you justify a seated wiggly-wig dance routine during "How Will I Ever Be Simple Again?" No wonder that show was nothing but single men wearing berets."

"We also suspect that this contingent's propensity to dress like the performer has caused premier acts to avoid St. Louis in abject horror," Johnson continued. "I saw more wide-rimmed glasses at the Elvis Costello concert than I would at my optometrist's office. Shit, if I was on stage and looked at the audience to see me looking back at me, I'd run like hell from this city also."

While the bulk of the St. Louis Police Department's resources are focusing on this suspect as their primary lead, other suspects have not yet been eliminated. Another promising culprit remains the glut of washed-up acts, primarily those of the classic rock or hair metal variety, that have turned St. Louis into a veritable hotbed for artists last seen on Behind the Music.

"Sammy Hagar could go on a tour where all he does is fart on stage and primp his hair, and it would sell out within minutes in this town. Then a second show would be added, and it would sell out even faster than the first," lamented one seasoned concert veteran who wished to remain nameless.

Detective Johnson does not dispute that this suspect could have played a role in the tragic demise of the St. Louis Music Scene either. "Nothing could kill a music scene quite like the recent White Lion/Poison brutal double bill. What did the cat drag in? How about a whole lot of hairspray, questionable hygienic practices, and enough botched boob jobs to last a lifetime - and that was just the men."

Others are eager to point out that the recent rash of androgynous bands who appeal to the angst-ridden kids of affluent suburbia has not yet been eliminated as a co-conspirator. "Panic At The Fall Out Disco Boy High School Gym Stars — or whatever they're called — sold out the Pageant with ease," one local indie concert promoter stated.

"All that mascara and eyeliner, coupled with a disturbing audience demographic of pre-teens whose wardrobe makes Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie seem downright butch, has taken its toll on the Scene. Some of the girls at the show wore makeup too."

Still a very small segment of the city's detectives are quietly pursuing one last suspect at the behest of Johnson himself: Richard "Dick" Reamer, a retired auto mechanic who has lived in the city for 60 years.

"Why Reamer? Because he's a bastard sumbitch who must be guilty of something. I just feel it in my police bones," Johnson was quoted as saying. "His porch has four barbeque pits and six wind chimes, and he soaks his feet in Epsom salt while listening to Benny Goodman. He's hiding something — I'm sure of it. I wouldn't be surprised to find a stockpile of mullets and worn-out copies of Frampton Comes Alive in his basement."

Regardless of the guilty party, St. Louis music fans are nearly unanimous in agreeing that the Scene's death did not come as a complete surprise. "We got Yo La Tengo, the Decemberists, and Andrew Bird all in one week in April. But send Twisted Sister, Hanson, and Sebastian Bach with their Inquisition-grade brand of torture to your town and see if it survives," one local music fan stated dejectedly. "Poor baby Scene, she never had a chance."

There is talk of an upcoming charity concert for the Scene. Proceeds will be distributed evenly between the Scene's closest relatives (Kansas City and Chicago, which have been getting the quality acts that have skipped St. Louis for years anyway), and among those traumatized by the recent senseless and deadly James Blunt concert.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Satire: Neil Young Returns to St. Louis; Fans Secure Second Mortgages to Buy Tickets

Tickets for Neil Young’s upcoming concert in St. Louis go on sale Monday, September 24. Young will perform his Chrome Dreams, Continental show on November 18 at the Fox Theatre, and the show will include both acoustic and electric sets. Ticket prices range from $58 for upper, upper, upper (bring a Sherpa) balcony seats to $184.50 for posh, orchestra pit seats.

Some of Young’s fans could not be more excited.

“I can’t wait for the chance on Monday to gladly shell out $184.50 for a ticket to see a performer who hasn’t released a classic album in about 30 years,” said Franklin Greenback, an investment banker from Chesterfield, an affluent suburb of St. Louis. “Triple-digit ticket prices seem more than fair for a performer whose sound or subject matter hasn’t really evolved since 1976. The service charges are reasonable as well; in fact, it’s only $23 for the moderately priced $184.50 orchestra pit ticket. The tickets are practically being given away, with such low prices.”

Other fans do not share Greenback’s opinion. “The farkin hell you say,” Robbie Poorman of Valley Park eloquently lamented, in between sips from his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon as he imbibed at a local pub on Friday morning. “If I wanted to get reamed like that, I’d go see a proctologist. I love Neil, but daddgummit, that’s a lot of Blue Ribbons.”

Still other fans are finding creative ways to support their Neil Young habits.

“My wife has agreed to cut our three children’s meals down to two a day, and my wife, the little angel, is stopping her medication for a few weeks. Lupus isn’t that serious, right?” said Jessie “Slappy” Pellegrino. “With these steps, I can afford two of the $79 middle balcony seats, and only have to shell out $22 in service charges. Plus, from the middle balcony about 50 rows back, Neil will look like a closer blur than he will for those shlubs in the upper balcony section. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with such a musical legend; there is nothing more inspiring for an audience than seeing an artistic genius through squinted eyes and binoculars.”

In general though, many of Young’s fans are sorely disappointed at the high cost of tickets for the show; from various Internet checks, it is also not readily apparent whether any of the proceeds will go to charity. VC Almond, a college student from Florissant, confirmed that he was unable to find any information indicating that at least a portion of the ticket revenue would go to charity.

“Don’t get me wrong," Almond said. “Neil’s done great things with Farm Aid and the Bridge School, so maybe some of the revenue will go to charity but it’s not being publicized. And if that’s true, anyone who writes a satirical article criticizing Neil would surely be the biggest asshole ever.”

The bone being thrown to fans in the form of a free copy of Chrome Dreams II if they purchase via the phone or Internet isn’t soothing the disappointment either. “A free album that I’d download for free or steal from a friend anyway? Big deal,” said Almond.

Greenback, however, remains bewildered by these complaints.

“It’s a bunch of potheads, poor liberals, pseudo-artists, and college kids pissing and moaning about the prices. And those aren’t Neil’s type of people, anyway,” Greenback stated.

The investment banker is likewise unapologetic that some fans of the musician view the ticket prices as crass exploitation of Young’s fans.

“Let those bums fight it out in the upper balcony steerage section. I’ll be enjoying the show from my orchestra seat, along with the lawyers, doctors, trust funders, and other corporate VIPs, as we listen to Neil’s songs about political injustice, personal desperation, doomed junkies, and other things we’ve never experienced. After all, isn’t that what music’s all about?”

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Music Review: Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True (Deluxe Edition)

By my count, this is approximately the 54th time My Aim Is True has been reissued. Rykodisc reissued the CD a number of years ago, followed by Rhino’s 2001 two-disc reissue, which seemed to close the book on Elvis Costello’s debut album. The 2001 reissue, besides being loaded with vintage-era photos, posters, and promos, included liner notes penned by Costello himself, which were both funny and informative. They were also the closest thing to a Costello autobiography fans might ever get. Plus, they placed the album in the context of Costello’s life at that time. In short, it had all the makings of the final word for this album.

Then, in 2007, Hip-O reissued the album, in digipack format with “original packaging” but without any bonus material. So when I later read that Hip-O was planning to issue a “deluxe version” of the album, I approached the news with quite a bit of skepticism. At a time when album sales are steadily declining but sub-standard reissues flood the market, it’s a fair question to ask whether another release of this album is necessary. After all, between the Rykodisc and Rhino versions, coupled with the My Aim Is True outtakes and live material that have floated around on bootlegs for years, what rock has not yet been turned over?

To my surprise, the Hip-O reissue in most cases surpasses the Rhino reissue, and makes it (hopefully) the last necessary reissue of this album. With two discs and around two hours of material including outtakes (the Pathway studio demos and an early Attractions performance from August 1977), Elvis’ army will find plenty to like. That will likely reward them for shelling out more baksheesh for another reissue.

New Costello fans who have not yet purchased the album should consider themselves lucky; they can buy only this version and find Costello’s liner notes from the Rhino version online. Then they should hope and pray another reissue with better material doesn’t hit in the next couple years.

To be sure, the reissue is not perfect. Its biggest drawback is the complete lack of liner notes that offer a fresh, or any, interpretation or appreciation of the album. I am not advocating the sycophantic-praise approach that plagues so many reissues, but either a new introduction by Costello or others associated with the making of the album (or bloody hell, a reprint of Costello’s notes from the Rhino reissue) should have been included.

The other shortcoming is the actual packaging, which becomes increasingly important as a selling point as music labels try to compete (or cooperate) with iTunes and other similar outlets. Most of the booklet included with this reissue consists of the lyrics to the album and reproductions of 1977-era posters, buttons, and other promotional materials that for the most part already appear in the Rhino reissue. However, the fold-out photo of the band onstage, along with the two photos of Costello in concert on the actual digipack, are very cool.

Nevertheless, this reissue is an essential purchase for a few reasons. The wealth of bonus material crushes the Rhino version like a grape. Whereas the Rhino version’s bonus disc contained less than 40 minutes of material, most of which was pretty dull and also widely available on bootlegs like Our Aim Is True or Flip City Demos, both discs on the Hip-O version are packed full of goodies. Two of the outtakes on Disc One were included on the Rhino version, but the other two demos were not. In addition, the Pathway Studio demos are now available on CD for the first time (with the exception of “Welcome To The Working Week”). The demos far surpass the Rhino material in showing how the songs took shape and evolved; the demo version of “Miracle Man” in particular rivals the version that would eventually find its way to the album.

Even better is the second disc, which consists of a 17-song live performance in London from August 7, 1977, as well as the earlier sound check from that show. Despite having begun playing live as a band a little more than two months before this show, the Attractions are remarkably tight and the show itself is blistering. Though not as manic, frenzied, aggressive, or confrontational as the wild live shows from 1978 that can be heard via unofficial channels, it’s the perfect document of Costello and the Attractions in their earliest days. Shades of the musical hysteria and savagery that would follow as the band toured Europe and United States in 1978 can be heard in the live versions of “Lip Service” and “Night Rally.” The recording quality of the show is also perfect; even the most critical ears will be hard-pressed to find something to criticize about the performance.

Other artists and labels looking to reissue their classic albums should use this reissue as a blueprint for satisfying even the most hardcore fans. At no point does this reissue come across as a cheap cash grab (like, say, the baffling and truly unessential Springsteen We Shall Overcome reissue, and from a blue-collar man of the people, no less). The demo and outtake material go a long way in creating a definitive overview of Costello and the Attractions circa 1977, and the Nashville Rooms concert is as good as any other 1977 show that has been traded over the years. Similar treatments for Costello’s other great albums would be very welcome, especially for This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy!

However, I’m drawing the line at any further reissues of Punch The Clock or Goodbye Cruel World.