Monday, December 15, 2008

Three Favorite Albums of 2008

Originally published at Go check that site out, bookmark it, tell all your frends. Good karma for you.

3. J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher -
Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies [Standard Recording]

Authored by musicians J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher, and originally conceived as part of the February Album Writing Month project in 2006, Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies was an ambitious effort that explored the mythology and history of the American presidency and the men who have alternately honored or shat upon that office. Ranging from songs of sympathy to those of scathing criticism and satire, and featuring contributions from many indie musicians, it successfully avoided the overindulgence and self-importance that sometimes plagues concept albums.

The songs were often structured as either character portraits or deathbed confessionals, with many of the presidents judged harshly. Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison were dismissed as war profiteers, Chester Arthur was depicted as an egotistical bastard, and George W. Bush was derided as stubborn and uncompromising fundamentalist. Even George Washington reeked of cynicism and Machiavellian expediency, with Kiefer portraying him as a silver-tongued political shyster:

Yet there were still some genuine moments of compassion, sympathy, or praise. Bill Callahan transformed John Tyler into an object of pity who unintentionally fell ass-backwards into the presidency after his predecessor's unexpected death in 1841. Pitcher imagined Harry Truman as a morally conflicted man and a mess of warring emotions. In perhaps the album's best song, the gorgeous and aching "Helicopters above Oakland," U.S. Grant was presented as a tired former soldier looking back in dismay at the ruin caused by the Civil War.

As Americans we tend to mythologize the presidency into beyond-epic proportions. This release looked past that bullshit and instead focused on the nation's leaders as regular, and sometimes very flawed, people.

2. Wilderness - (k)no(w)here [Jagjaguwar]

Conceived as a single musical piece and inspired by a collaboration with artist Charles Long, (k)no(w)here was a foreboding and menacing release from the Baltimore collective. Songs bled into each other without any discernible break; to the listener it created an odd effect of being trapped inside a lunatic's mind. Throughout the album lead singer James Johnson yelped, barked and howled on top of the band's aggressive guitars and drums, his words oddly enunciated and often times unintelligible save for a few repeated phrases or snatches of lyrics. When Johnson's words were understandable, they almost always hinted at some type of upcoming but unnamed disaster, usually with a heavy dose of social or political undertones. Evocative of bands like PiL, Fugazi, and The Jesus Lizard, (k)no(w)here was both difficult to comprehend and yet, in the election year of a country with an economy going into the crapper and an outgoing administration that can't slink away soon enough, also somehow perfectly timely.

1. Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums - Dark Developments [Orange Twin]

An album that combined Vic Chesnutt's ability to craft melodies and darkly humorous lyrics with his penchant for distortion and electricity, Dark Developments was the singer's best effort since The Salesman and Bernadette. Joined by Elf Power and frequent backing band the Amorphous Strums, Chesnutt set aside the plodding vocal arrangements and murky production that plagued Ghetto Bells and the bursts of random noises that made North Star Deserter sound too experimental for its own good in favor of tight songs that relied heavily on background vocals and melodies you could even hum.

The album served up a big helping of anger and cynicism. Chesnutt spat out insults in "Little Fucker;" though the target was never named, it was tempting to view the song as a much-deserved dismissal of any number of people from the outgoing Bush regime. Other songs like "Stop the Horse" and "Teddy Bear" were also fodder for similar political interpretations.
Yet the album never got bogged down in political polemics; the subject matter was specific enough to suggest a certain topic but vague enough to allow music fans and overzealous critics to speculate wildly about each song. Overall the album was a cohesive synthesis of what still makes Chesnutt's music so original and fascinating - a melody that lodges in your brain and won't get out, a disturbing or bleakly humorous lyric and a keen eye for the mundane details of life and death.

Friday, December 12, 2008

David Byrne & Brian Eno: Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

A legacy is a hard thing to live up to. For David Byrne and Brian Eno, a large part of their legacy is tied to 1981's My Life In the Bush of Ghosts; a collaborative effort and landmark album that employed samples and random voices in place of traditional singing, it remains one of music's most influential albums and, for better or worse, has spawned a thousand cheap imitations and two-bit knockoffs.

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today marks the first collaborative album between Byrne and Eno in nearly 30 years. Described by Eno as "electronic gospel" and by Byrne as "more emotional than technical" in the liner notes, this release has little in common with Bush of Ghosts, both in terms of how it was created and how it sounds. Whereas Bush of Ghosts was born out of close collaboration between the two musicians around the same time as the making of the Talking Heads' album Remain In Light, this latest offering was essentially a long-distance affair, with Byrne providing lyrics and vocals to tracks Eno had previously recorded. The songs were eventually kicked back and forth and beaten into shape with session players and outside musicians.

This sort of impersonal collaboration inherently runs the risk of resulting in a disjointed album, but for the most part this isn't the case with Everything. With a few exceptions, it sounds like a single coherent effort, instead of something strung together from two separate parts. Byrne's lyrics and vocals fit Eno's tracks, which (at least by his unique standards) are straightforward and display little of the musician's more ambient or obtuse tendencies. The instrumentation is mostly understated and uncluttered, with an emphasis placed on simple, restrained melodies.

The first two songs, "Home" and "My Big Nurse," are both built around an acoustic guitar, while the melody and rhythm of "Everything That Happens," "Life Is Long" and closer "The Lighthouse" are at least partly set by pianos and keyboards. There are still plenty of electronic pops and clicks - this is Brian Eno we're talking about - but these are mixed nicely with the actual instrumentation. And though Byrne won't ever be mistaken for a smooth crooner, his singing on these songs, and throughout the album, is strong and direct; the twitchy vocal style most often associated with him are largely absent here.

The songs that stray from this approach are usually the least successful ones. "Wanted For Life" and "Poor Boy" are pretty frenetic and sound out of step with the other tracks. Both play out as some type of perverted mixture of 1980s synth music and modern hip-hop; the distorted and smothered vocals on "Poor Boy" in particular kill the song before it really even gets started.

Snarky fans out there could argue that Byrne's lyrics don't' really stray outside his comfort zone - more songs about buildings and food indeed - but there is a certain degree of Pleasant Valley Sunday nostalgia and optimism that is somewhat unique to the Byrne songbook. Byrne acknowledges as much in the liner notes, commenting on the album's "sanguine and heartening tone." In songs like "Home," "My Big Nurse," "One Fine Day," and "The River," Byrne uses images that evoke a definite sense of contentment. Though Byrne's penchant for social commentary and dark humor occasionally creeps in with some references to war, his neighbor's exploding car, and the litany of criminal activity in "Wanted for Life," the album is predominantly hopeful.

Aside from a few murky songs that primarily serve to indulge Eno's need for sonic experimentation, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is an enjoyable album that reveals a bit more with each listen. It doesn't try to be a redux of My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. Sometimes, it's enough to acknowledge a legacy without the burden of trying to top it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rediscover: The Triffids - Born Sandy Devotional

It starts with a suicide and ends with a man not wanting to drink alone. In the space between, the songs on the Triffids' masterpiece Born Sandy Devotional explore themes of violence, death, commitment, faithlessness and isolation set against the desolate backdrop of the band's native Australia. Drifters and drunkards, wronged by love, hurtle through the darkness of night pulsing with, and comforted by, thoughts of revenge.
First the boring technical details: At the time of the album's release in March 1986, the band consisted of Graham Lee (steel guitars), Martyn Casey (bass), Jill Birt (vocals and keyboards), Robert McComb (violin, guitar, and backing vocals), Alsy MacDonald (drums and backing vocals) and David McComb (lyrics, lead vocals, guitar, and occasional keyboards). The album was recorded in London and mixed in Liverpool. For those keeping score at home, it peaked at number 37 on the Australian charts, and, for some bizarre reason, scored even higher on the Swedish charts. Hell if I know why.
David McComb, who wrote all the album's lyrics, still remains one of music's more unheralded, fascinating, and, ultimately tragic, front men. Throughout this life he suffered from chronic back pain and addictions to a whole host of substances, including alcohol, amphetamines and heroin; his alcoholism was likely the catalyst for the heart condition he eventually developed. By all accounts, a heart transplant in 1996 still didn't cause McComb to scale back his drinking or drug use. In 1999, long after the band had split up and while McComb kept on with various musical projects, he was involved in an automobile accident and died a few days after being released from the hospital. The official cause of death was attributed to heroin and mild rejection of his transplant. McComb was only 36.
In various interviews McComb talked frequently about the autobiographical nature of Born Sandy Devotional; certainly it's tempting to see the album as McComb confronting and variously exorcising, accepting, or denying the sordid and messy details of his own life. But this also implies that the album is obtusely introspective or inaccessible, which it isn't. The various emotions expressed in these songs, most of which are ugly, bleak, and exceedingly dark, are usually addressed in narratives that do not limit themselves to a particular time, place, or person. Though both McComb and the rest of the band were clearly influenced by their homeland- the album is dotted with references to Australian locales, and the album cover depicts the west Australian city of Mandurah circa 1961 - the album's lyrics and music are not bound by that geography.
McComb once described Born Sandy Devotional as "following the idea of fidelity as a complete all-consuming faith." It's an interesting characterization, since most the album focuses on what happens when that fidelity is shattered. Nearly every song deals with relationships on the skids that are well past the point of either reconciliation or simple acceptance.
In these songs, the primary options are suicide, drinking to the point of numbness, ranting lunacy, or sweet revenge. Opening track "Seabirds," with its gorgeous melody and prominent strings, vividly chronicles the death of a man at the end of his rope, unable to find comfort in booze or the "total stranger lying next to him" in a ratty motel room bed. The man swims out to a reef and presumably jumps to his death, alone but for the impassive birds nearby: "They could pick the eye from any dying thing/ That lay within their reach/ But they would not touch the solitary figure/ Lying tossed up on the beach."

Other characters descend into batshit craziness. We never find out if the disturbed gun-toting maniac of "Chicken Killer" is even aware that the girl he's searching for "caught death as only lovers can ever catch can." Instead, he rants and rages as he searches for a girl who's clearly not going to be found north of the cold hard ground: "I ran through the crowd calling out your name/ To the blind the deaf the dumb the lame/ But they shook their heads and pointed to the sky/ Saying she's in His Hands now my boy." The driver in "Lonely Stretch" finds himself lost in a barren landscape, heavy with menacing vibes and a declining grasp of reality. Lost where "land was so flat, could well have been ocean/ no distinguishing feature in any direction," the driver is prone to hallucinations and drives aimlessly as he broods about a woman and realizes "you could die out here from a broken heart."
For McComb's characters who aren't interested in offing themselves or howling at the moon, offing someone else is a viable alternative; the possibility of retribution keeps these tormented souls going. The mostly gentle instrumentation and McComb's baritone voice in "Wide Open Road" betray the violence foreshadowed by its narrator. It's a picture of man gearing up for payback. Disconnecting himself from his personal connections ("I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin/ I cut them off as limbs") and coping with a fractured psyche ("Drums rolled off in my forehead/ And the guns went off in my chest"), he's got his eyes on a very specific prize before he keeps on down the road: "I drove out over the flatlands/ Hunting down you and him."
These various themes are most clearly woven together on "Stolen Property," perhaps the album's most startling, emotional and complex song. It's a devastating track with a funereal mix of keyboards and jagged strings, unflinching in its sense of despair, regret, anger and loss. What emerges is ostensibly a portrait of a man evaluating how little he's accomplished in life as he struggles to cope with being alone:
You just lie around waiting on a signal from heaven
Never had to heal any deep incision
Darling you are not moving any mountains
You are not seeing any visions
You are not freeing any people from prison
Just an aphorism for every occasion

The song ends without resolution; McComb doesn't let on whether the man will choose a self-inflicted ending like in "Seabirds" or pursue revenge as in "Wide Open Road." What's clear though is that he's worse off than before; the consolation that "she don't belong here anymore, learn this the hard way" is particularly sarcastic and biting. Like most of the songs, a violent ending is implied - "Pick yourself up! Hold yourself up to the light!/ Duck your head! Watch for the blade!" - though the target itself remains unclear.
The album isn't entirely dark. The country-tinged "Estuary Bed" implies a sense of devotion, and album closer "Tender Is the Night (The Long Fidelity)" is the most romantic and sentimental song on the album. Sung as a duet between McComb and Jill Birt, it's a mostly uplifting ending to the album, though the "gentle young man" described in the song has aged "years before his time" and his attraction to the woman is at least partially based on the fact that he doesn't' want to drink alone again.
Over 20 years on from its initial release, Born Sandy Devotional remains one of the music's true underappreciated albums. The lyrics are exceptional and moving, with recurring images that link the songs together. Coupled with McComb's evocative voice, the music is immediate and timeless and covers a wide spectrum of musical styles, whether it's the symphonic qualities of "Seabirds," the rolling keyboards of "Personal Things," or the sheer mad swirls of noise and howling echoes throughout "Lonely Stretch." It's an album of starkness, violence, beauty and death. Epic in scope and flawless in execution, it remains the Triffids' finest moment.

Pavement: Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition

As music fans, we've been conditioned to approach reissues with a healthy degree of skepticism. A label sexes up a landmark album, maybe one that you played at your wedding or that still reminds you of the time you lost your virginity in the pet cemetery, by adding a few scratchy demos, inferior outtakes, concert droppings, digital remastering, and "original artwork." For many music obsessives the lure of these unearthed treasures is too strong to resist; for the truly unlucky, a few years later that album is again repackaged with a few additional songs that could have been included on the original reissue, and foisted upon the masses for another quick cash grab. I'm looking in your direction, Mr. Costello, and please no more new editions of My Aim Is True or This Year's Model.
The Matador label's approach in reissuing the back catalog of indie heavyweight Pavement has been far more enlightened. With each original release expanded into two discs consisting of the original songs plus demos, outtakes, b-sides, radio sessions, and live performances, along with liner notes and packaging, this reissue campaign has offered listeners an expansive snapshot of the band at each phase of its history.
Though the band's legacy is usually staked to debut album Slanted and Enchanted and second release Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Matador's reissue series has offered a pleasant opportunity to re-evaluate the band's later, allegedly inferior albums. The label's recent release of an expanded Wowee Zowee served as a reminder of how wonderfully sloppy and erratic that genre-hopping album still is.
The latest Pavement album to get the reissue treatment is 1997's Brighten the Corners. For the most part, it's aged very well, at least certainly better than Wowee Zowee. And though it might constitute indie heresy, I actually still find it more interesting and listenable than the supposedly untouchable Crooked Rain, which I will vehemently always maintain has several horrific songs on it (when's the last time you listened to "Newark Wilder" or "Fillmore Jive" without getting bored or skipping to the next track?).
Produced by Mitch Easter, Brighten the Corners still sounds cohesive, humorous and incredibly sarcastic. It's slower and more musically reserved than the band's previous albums; the random explosions of noise and Stephen Malkmus's screaming found on songs like "Chesley's Little Wrists" or "No Life Singed Her" is mostly absent. Singles like the sardonic "Shady Lane" and the dissonant "Stereo" still rank among the band's best work, while other songs like "Date With Ikea," "Transport Is Arranged," and "Type Slowly" show the band was also able to craft nice melodies in their more laid back moments. If this reissue confirms anything, it's that there's not a boring song to be found on the album.
Of course the real question surrounding any reissue is whether the bonus material necessitates another purchase by fans who have already shelled out money for the original album; this question becomes even more relevant given the current shithole economy we're all mired in. Quite simply, this reissue is more jammed up than a constipated septuagenarian. And that's a good thing. Disc one is rounded out with a number of b-sides and a couple unreleased songs from the Brighten the Corners sessions; of these, "Westie Can Drum" is the choice cut and features some real hardcore screaming from Malkmus.
The second disc is a Pavement fan's wet dream. It starts with four songs that comprised the b-sides to "Shady Lane," all of which would have fit nicely on the album. This disc also includes selections from various 1997 radio sessions for the BBC, the venerable "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show and John Peel. The MBE songs feature the band in full-on aggression mode, especially on "Maybe Maybe" and the Faust cover song "It's a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl," while the Peel session includes a cover of The Fall's "The Classical" that amazingly doesn't blow. The disc is rounded out with a few other odds and ends, most notably a live version of "Type Slowly" and a cover version of Echo & the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon."
Though some fickle fans will probably find flaws with this release - certainly a few more live songs or even a full concert similar to what was done for the repackaged Slanted and Enchanted would have been welcome - Matador's latest Pavement reissue is essential listening for both longtime fans as well as those younger affluent suburban kids just starting to get in touch with their angst and slackerdom. Other record labels and artist would be well served to follow this example.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Music Review: Charlie Louvin - Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs

Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs is the second release in 2008 from the grizzled music veteran. Earlier this year Louvin got godly on Steps to Heaven, a strong collection of gospel songs that also included a sometimes-overzealous set of background singers. Showing a definite Christian religious conviction without being heavy-handed or dogmatic, it focused heavily on mortality, albeit with an uplifting underlying theme of the afterlife. Louvin’s latest album veers dramatically in the opposite direction; Sings Murder is far more morbid, bleak, violent, and darkly humorous than Steps to Heaven. Mixing a number of traditional folkie/bluegrass songs (some of which previously appeared on the excellent People Take Warning! box set) with other old-timey tunes that nevertheless still sound relevant today, the album also serves as a nice reminder of just how fascinating, bizarre, and strangely beautiful these aging ballads are. It also recalls Louvin’s earliest work; 1956’s ironically-titled Tragic Songs of Life dealt heavily in equally dark topics.
The album’s production serves Louvin’s ragged voice very well; under the guidance of producer Mark Nevers, the songs are warm and balanced. Each instrument is given enough space, the album never sounds cluttered or over saturated, and Louvin’s voice is just right in the mix. The record blends musical elements that play to Louvin’s strengths, whether it’s the upbeat country roll of “Darling Corey,” (which also features Andrew Bird on fiddle), the rustic spiritual arrangement of “Wreck On the Highway,” the subdued guitar work on “Dark as a Dungeon, or the steel guitars that dot most of the songs.
The album includes several ballads that are standards of American music. “Wreck of the Old 97” and “Dark as a Dungeon” are probably the two songs that listeners who aren’t hardcore music history wackos will even recognize, probably because those songs have been performed by other artists. Louvin’s take on the venerable train tragedy song is far more restrained than Johnny Cash’s speed-fuelled live versions, though Louvin’s performance here similarly relies on a rhythm and instrumental approach that is highly evocative of a train. Louvin approaches Merle Travis’ “Dungeon” with a vocal weariness that brings out the song’s gloom and doom far better than the shrill versions Joan Baez has subjected our ears to over the years.
Other songs show that Louvin remains a skilled interpreter of American ballads. The traditional “The Little Grave in Georgia” is the album’s most moving and emotional song, with a remarkably depressing violin and guitar melody underpinning the woeful tale about dead Mary and her grave “all covered in ivy.” It also features Louvin’s most assured and confident singing.
Sings Murder also serves as a nice primer on the images, metaphors, and plainly strange motifs that define the American songbook. In these songs people die of broken hearts and it’s entirely believable; the tragic couple of “Katy Dear” are forbidden to marry by their parents, so of course they do the most logical thing and kill themselves (hell if I know why they don’t just defy their parents and get hitched anyway). A father can coldly turn his back on his daughter and her newborn child, only to become overcome with grief and sorrow when she (big surprise) freezes to death outside his doorstep (“Mary of the Wild Moor”). And in these songs fatal highway wrecks come with “whiskey and blood all together mixed with the glass,” great ships sink, trains crash, village bells toll in mourning, a brother is killed in a freak hunting accident, the cotton crop goes to shit, and the hair of the dead underage beautiful girl is always dark and curly. Sings Murder isn’t for everyone; it won’t light up the charts and its best songs won’t be used in a promo for CSI Miami. But for music fans interested in the bizarre and beautiful nature of traditional songs, this is a welcome and worthwhile album.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Guns N' Roses - Chines Democracy - Review

To my college roommate who I promised that I'd run circles buck-ass naked around the Arch if Chinese Democracy ever saw official release: I sure as hell hope you aren't reading this. After a 17-year tease that left many Guns N' Roses fans with a serious case of rock 'n' roll blue balls, what's left of the band best known for Appetite for Destruction and a seemingly single-minded focus on self-implosion and legacy dry humping has finally expurgated the oft-rumored album. And the music world yawns and scratches itself. Cue up the indifference.

What its primary conspirator, Axl Rose, probably envisioned as a grand musical masterpiece that would set the music world aflame is instead a dull, monotonous and intensely bland album. To be sure, the album was probably hyped and spoken about in hushed tones far more than it should have been. In the comedy of errors and false starts that has been the history of Chinese Democracy, it was mythologized and elevated into some sort of aural Holy Grail; the only problem is that this grail is filled with backwash. I wanted to like this album, but there's no other way to say it: Chinese Democracy is an overproduced and overwrought wreck.

Those GNR fans who want to disavow this as a genuine GNR release would be well served to speak up now, or, in deference to Rose's vocal approach, shriek their objections like a helium-sucking hooligan. Certainly they have plenty of ammunition to support this argument: Rose was the only original GNR member who, um, nursed this tubercular wheezing child along, countless musicians as well as an orchestra are "credited" as having contributed to it, and a small army of people were involved in engineering and ProTools tasks. I guess it's like Elephant 6 but with far worse results.

Surveying the wreckage that is Chinese Democracy, the album's major flaws are in its production. Songs like - oh hell, take your pick - are suffocated under layer after layer of ProTools add-ins, vocal distortions and treatments, mid-1990s industrial clichés and vintage 1980s power chords. It sounds like the strategy employed here was to throw a bunch of shit at a wall and see what stuck, and in a sense I suppose a lot of shit did stick. Without careful attention from the listener, songs like "Shackler's Revenge," "I.R.S," "Catcher in the Rye," "Scraped" and "Prostitute" quickly become indistinguishable from each other and blend into a solid block of auditory misery, drowned under a flood of disposable and redundant arrangements. For perverse fun, GNR aficionados are encouraged to play the iPod quiz game to see how quickly (or even if) they can differentiate these songs.

Rose's vocal approach doesn't do the songs any favors either. Though as a singer he's occasionally been prone to such exaggerated vocal quirks - what his singing did to "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" is unforgivable - these quirks were usually reigned in and in many ways gave GNR's songs a distinctive style that separated them from their contemporaries. On Chinese Democracy Rose alternates from line to line between his deep voice and its upper register bastard cousin. Coupled with the lyrics' macho posturing and the self-caricature, it's a bit like listening to someone with multiple personality disorder having a conversation with himself.

This review isn't meant to be Axl bashing; like many GNR fans, I was hopeful that Chinese Democracy would be a ballsy, aggressive and innovative record on par with Appetite for Destruction. And I'm sure there are some fans enjoying this release right now, channeling their inner Axl, frantically trying to score for some vintage Mr. Brownstone, and desperately convincing their wives or girlfriends to just let them borrow the "Welcome to the Jungle" mascara already. But there's very little newness or creativity here; worse, the album sounds like the work of a man stuck in a time warp, short on an ability to self-edit and armed with a Yankees-sized budget. As Chinese Democracy was delayed year after year and transformed itself from the band's missing masterpiece to a musical punch line, it was impossible for GNR fans not to become increasingly skeptical. Now we see why.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Concert Review: Calexico

Nov 9, 2008

On Sunday nights in St. Louis, people tend to shut it down early, even more so when it's freezing-ass cold like it was this particular night. A bit of grousing about the completely hapless Rams, asking a random stranger where he went to high school, and incredulously still pondering how the hell Ralph Nader received 17,000 votes in Missouri, and it's time to call it a day. Anything on top of that is just too much.

With some exceptions, Sunday night concerts in this town also seem to reflect this malaise; after all, it is a work night. Sure the hardcore musos still turn out in force and stare mesmerized at their musical heroes, but casual fans that might be more inclined to see a show on Friday or Saturday seem to bunker down at home on Sunday nights.

Consequently it was nice to see the capacity turnout for Calexico's show at the Duck Room on a Sunday. Essentially a cold basement that would bear a disturbing similarity to the stage design for Samuel Beckett's Endgame were it not for the stuffed, framed and mounted ducks that line the walls; what the Duck Room lacks in acoustics it more than makes up for in intimacy. At capacity (or in this case, what seemed like damn near over capacity) it's a tight squeeze for both musicians and fans alike, but when the band is on and the fans are receptive and not solely focused on double-fisting Bud Lights, it ranks among the top music venues in the city.

With the majority of concertgoers bundled up in heavy coats or ratty but ever-so-indie hoodies, Calexico tore through a set that drew heavily from latest release Carried To Dust, with a few older songs and cover tunes added to the mix. It was a sweaty, raucous, and damn loud show; the ringing in my ears still hasn't faded and I kept hearing mariachi horns when stuck in traffic this morning.

On record, Calexico tends to be very polished, textured and carefully crafted, with melodies woven into the songs that reveal themselves slowly with multiple listens. This isn't a knock or criticism by any means; at their best there are few bands that can evoke specific locations, moods, or atmospheres the way Calexico can. Yet at the Duck Room they were a whole different beast: rough around the edges, the band approached the songs with a palpable aggressiveness largely absent from their albums. Songs like opener "Quattro (World Drifts In)" "Bend In the Road, and "House of Valparaiso" incorporated the trademark Calexico sound, but were just more manic and frenzied than their album versions. "Guero Canelo" was reworked as well, foregoing its somewhat over-produced album version for something far more jagged and loose.

Though a few downbeat songs were thrown in, probably to temporarily relieve our throbbing eardrums - the country roll of "Slowness" and a languid "Fractured Air" were particularly soothing - the show's best moments came when the band was pounding away on their instruments. A few covers were also given this treatment. Two Minutemen songs that have frequented the band's shows for years - "Corona" and "Jesus and Tequila" - were played at breakneck pace, though sadly, only a few brave souls earnestly pogoed. "Victor Jara's Hands" segued into a few verses of the Bob Dylan groaner "Silvio." Who knew that Calexico could make that song bearable?

For the most part the sound was good, though Joey Burns' vocals on "Two Silver Trees" and "Writer's Minor Holiday" were mostly inaudible. Still that's about the worst that could be set about this particular show. Although the many people raving at the show's conclusion that it was the best concert they'd ever seen can at least partly be attributed to semi-drunken post-concert euphoria, it was still a memorable and exciting show. Even if it was a work night.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Interview: Michael Grace Jr. from The Secret History

The Secret History was formed by songwriter Michael Grace Jr., perhaps most widely known in indie circles for the album The Happiest Days of Our Lives, from his previous band My Favorite. The Secret History’s debut EP, Desolation Town, is an evocative and atmospheric release that incorporates a variety of genres and thematically unfolds across a landscape that encompasses Hiroshima, Palermo, Barcelona, and Iraq. In the following interview, Grace discusses the genesis of the EP and its major themes, ideas, and influences; explains why he’s not bothered if listeners misinterpret his songs; and subjects himself to more interviewer prodding than most people would be willing to endure. And he’s not shy about which classic albums he really cannot stand.

Desolation Town is drawing comparisons to the Patti Smith Group and The Smiths, among others. What are your thoughts on those types of comparisons?

I think it is fantastic. In fact, if only there were more artists with the word “Smith” in their name, than this point of reference could be expanded! No seriously, The Smiths will always be the band that made me want to throw my hat into the ring. They were the band that showed me that music could really paint a vulgar picture, could really make you feel something. I’ll always be a disciple of that. As far as Patti Smith, she’s everything great about New York, everything I miss about New York… that’s immensely flattering.

The way Lisa Ronson sings certain songs, especially “Our Lady of Pompeii” and “The Ballad of the Haunted Hearts,” reminds me of indie pop bands like The New Pornographers. Is that valid or should I have my ears examined?

All thoughts are valid! The New Pornographers are a fine group, whom our keyboard player Kurt, and our House Designer Laura really love. I need to make it my business to listen to them more. What I’ve heard I quite like. Lisa, though, has never listened to them. She does like Camera Obscura however.

Before we mercifully leave this topic, what bands that wouldn’t be apparent from listening to the EP would you cite as influences in making Desolation Town?

Oh I think I’m actually going to answer this honestly despite my reservations. There are things about Death In June that really intrigue me. There are also things that really repel me. But I’m kind of hypnotized. A bit of that gothic pastoralism probably seeped into “Palermo.” As if to outdo myself, I’m also going to admit that some of the stranger bits of Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” influenced a track or two somewhere. Ok, now that we’ve reduced our fanbase by 96%...

Each song on the EP tends to have its own unique musical style. One of the things I like about it is that it genre hops without coming across as unfocused or pointlessly random. Was it a conscious effort to shape the EP this way?

Yeah, well I really wanted to put the listener in this vaguely familiar place, somewhere in the past, like the setting of film. And I like how in cinema, the soundtrack is bound to the film by ideas or emotions… but it varies in sound and style, and often artist. I’d like to retain that flexibility. I like how things can change rapidly in dreams, but something of a narrative sustains. All the songs come together to form a sound, but no individual one says everything about us. I think David Bowie was very good at that also.

The song arrangements are credited to the entire band. Was it difficult reaching agreement on the arrangements among seven band members?

Sometimes, but not often. I think the songs only get better when you let people mess with them. I have some really talented blokes in this group, and what they add is what makes these songs what they are. I need that. I’m always surprised, but usually pleased when a song goes off a little in a direction I didn’t anticipate. I mean, I introduce them as folk songs and then say something like “I hear the intro to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin.’” There’s a lot of room for interpretation after that.

Now I’m going to prod you about what the album means. The liner notes contain a few paragraphs about someone who leaves a ruined Hiroshima, wanders around Europe, and ends up in Palermo. Some of the songs on the EP hint at this story as well. Though I hesitate to call the EP strictly autobiographical or a concept album, it seems to have a definite story arc. Can you explain?

Well I’ve always liked atmospheric liner notes, whether from Dylan or Paul Weller or Stuart Murdoch. I’m a frustrated novelist, so I take what opportunities arise. What I will say is that my previous band ended with a song about Hiroshima, so I figured this one should start there. I’ve lived through disasters with a small “d” as we all have. Had things ruined, and have had to figure out how to survive. I’ve also been to Palermo. So there is always something of a writer’s life in his work, I’d hope. But on the other hand, “Pompeii” is set on the battlefields of Iraq, and although it means more than that, the specific experience of being a soldier is something I’ve thankfully not experienced.

One of the things I find most interesting about Desolation Town is that while there’s a definite geography and unity of place, the events within the song aren’t tied to a specific time or era.

Yeah, well I’m glad you said that! I’m really interested in a non-linear sense of time. That is to say, that the same character or heartbreak could happen simultaneously in different places at different times, like Wuthering Heights. So it could be New York City in 1979 or Palermo in 1879. Certain problems linger, don’t you agree?

There seems to be a sense of loss and regret throughout the EP.

Yes. I’ve lost some things, and regrets… I’ve had a few. Then again, too few to mention. But seriously, much art is lamentation. And this certainly is.

Does it bother you as a writer that listeners will possibly interpret these songs in a way that is different with what you intended? For example, I interpret “It’s Not the End of the World, Jonah” as cynical and sarcastic, but what you intended could be something else entirely.

No, quite the opposite, I’m thrilled when they do. I try to create songs with drama, and atmosphere and ornamentation… but songs that have the space within them to be explored, interpreted, rewritten in the listener’s image. That’s far more interesting than the sordid details of my life, don’t you think? Whatever a listener adds to a song in their mind is just as important as what I wrote. We’re partners, lovers in a long distance affair.

A writer once told me that when someone else sings his songs, he feels like a divorced man watching someone else play new daddy to his children. Though you wrote the songs on Desolation Town, you’re not the main vocalist. As a songwriter, are you protective of your songs and how they’re sung?

Well, I’ve always had another singer sing the bulk of my songs. I prefer it, for reasons that have a lot to do with my answer to the previous question. The more prisms a song can pass through, the better. But, it did take a while until I got comfortable with this particular prism, being Lisa. She is so different in so many ways from the vocalist in my previous group. But at this point, these songs are hers as much as mine. But in terms of being covered, one of my songs “Burning Hearts,” has been covered by the group Winterpills, and I do find that a strange pleasure.

Is a full-length album in the works, and will the band be touring anytime soon?

We are currently working on a full length, and hope to have it out by Spring '09. I’m not sure we will be touring till then, but we’d love to hit some east coast cities in the next few months while we finish.

What are your favorite albums of 2008?

I like My Teenage Stride’s Lesser Demons EP, the Evangelicals record. My brother often has to make mix cds for me, of new stuff, because I’m always playing old vinyl in my room. Nothing to boast about mind you.

What’s the one classic album you can’t stand?

There is probably a lot more than one. I actually had to look at the Rolling Stone top 500 records to figure out this answer. I decided to use the highest ranking record I could honestly say I did not like at all. Nirvana’s Nevermind at 17 is pretty ridiculous, it wouldn’t make my top 500, but I can stand it… barely. Billy Joel’s The Stranger at 67 is absolutely horrendous. But I probably secretly like it, or at least as a Long Islander have some conflicted emotion. Guns & Roses at 61, uggh… but I did like it as a troubled 15 year old. The Eagles at 35, well I do like the song “Hotel California,” but I hate that band. Does that disqualify them?

Oh this list is pissing me off so much. I can’t even answer this question. I think Derek & The Dominos at 117 is the first record I really hate. But the fact that The Red Hot Chili Peppers at 310 appear before The Smiths at 385 (or at all)… oh lord have mercy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Column: My Life Could Be Your Band

of the bravest men I ever met was a guy who wore a T-shirt declaring "Your Favorite Band Sucks." This was at Built To Spill's St. Louis show at the now-defunct and much-lamented Mississippi Nights nightclub, way back in those heady days of 2004. I don't say he was brave because the crowd was particularly rough or violent that night; it's not difficult to be the toughest person among an indie crowd, which tends to consist of frail people sporting hoodies, black-framed glasses and heavy doses of mascara. Some of the women also wear mascara.

No, I say this man was brave for the simple and seemingly unremarkable act of wearing this shirt. Why? Because, with some exceptions, we music fans tend to take any criticism of our favorite artists as deeply personal insults on par with the most biting Yo Mamma jokes or the most inflammatory political rhetoric. Such criticism can open the critic up to a host of various insults, threats and suggestions to do something to himself that is physically impossible, often via the anonymity and safety net the Internet provides. If politics and religion are the two traditional hot button topics guaranteed to result in bruised feelings and bloodied noses, music should probably be added to that list.

Anyone noble or foolish enough to voice such dissent across the Internet's truly-disturbing global reach has probably felt such wrath. A couple years ago I wrote a facetious and, what I considered, utterly silly and entirely innocuous article that questioned why the Lynyrd Skynyrd standard-for-lousy-songs tune "Free Bird" tends to be eagerly requested by the more intoxicated or tone deaf elements of a concert crowd. Meant only to bring a chuckle or two to someone's dreary day, it instead resulted in a pretty impressive barrage of hate email from those Skynyrd disciples who walk anonymously among us. In a perverse way, I've actually started looking forward to these mails, which are usually sent from a culprit with a Southern-centric handle like george_wallace_fan or robert_e_lee_luver and generally take an amazingly vulgar Confederacy vs. Yankees approach in explaining why I'm missing the point about Skynyrd's brilliance.

I don't bring this up as any type of woe-is-me lament or for blatant and unrepentantly shameless self-promotion. Even worse, I'm guilty of the same hypocrisy and must admit that I have occasionally counted myself among this parade of fools. Take a shot at Born Sandy Devotional and I'm liable to lock onto your leg like a rabid pit bull. My brother and I have almost identical musical tastes, yet our differing views about R.E.M.'s Monster have threatened to create a rift between us usually reserved for ugly squabbles involving inheritances. He likes it; I know it's the aural equivalent of rotting Spam. When I tried to get my wife sufficiently prepped for an Elvis Costello concert, I requested that she listen to This Year's Model and Get Happy!!, two indisputable classics. When she recoiled in horror and cruelly dismissed both as "circus music, minus the elephants," I reacted as if I'd been smacked in the jewels with a ball peen hammer. Only our eventual mutual agreement about Okkervil River prevented an ugly, prolonged marital spat, though I still suspect she likes the drummer more than the band's music.

Which brings me back to the central question of this rambling article: why do so many music fans get so bothered, and in many cases grossly offended, when their favorite artists are either criticized or outright dismissed by those who don't worship at that particular altar? Certainly some music fans are off the reservation; these are the ones you see listening to their favorite musicians at the gym, on the bus, or at work with an awed expression of hero worship that clearly shows that in their minds there right up there on that stage with the band. These are the people who dress up like their favorite performers, think that every song was written as a coded message to them, and drive cross-country to attend concerts, work and family commitments be damned. Wait, I've done that; scratch that last one.

Clearly such die-hards are without any possibility of redemption and should thus be handled with kid gloves, patted gently on the top of the head and perhaps even relocated to a deserted island near the coast of Borneo for everyone's safety. Yet I've seen many cases where otherwise rational people react like vultures around a carcass when confronted with particularly pointed or satiric music criticism about their musical tastes.

The reasons for this are several: first (and please excuse this brief foray into armchair psychology), whether rightly or not, as music fans we tend to define who we are by the type of music we listen to. And when self-identify jumps into bed with musical preferences for a romping tango, it's not too surprising that fans sometimes react with such strong emotions in the face of these critiques. Essentially an individual's musical tastes become an extension of that individual; thus, there's a tendency to view such comments as personal attacks.

The other main reason is that music fans tend to identify music with particular milestones or important events in their lives ("In the Aeroplane Over the Sea helped me get through my unfortunate accident/divorce/third stint in rehab, so I'll brain you if you insult it"). Think about one of your personal favorite songs or albums; there's a good chance it will remind you of a very specific time and place in your life (you know, when you were young and naïve and didn't yet know life was a cruel, unforgiving whelp of a whore who brings nothing but disappointment). Such memories make us unintentionally defensive about slights directed at the music we hold so near and dear. Music shapes how many of us remember our past; is it therefore any wonder that we bristle when the music that frames this past is belittled or questioned?

Certainly there are numerous other reasons - some music fans just like to argue and play the roll of trolls on various websites, some critiques border on cheap personal attacks and deserve to be challenged, among others - but this somewhat unhealthy self-identification seems to be a large reason fans can react emotionally to perceived attacks about their musical preferences. Of course there are plenty of musos who can brush off such comments with a shrug, without it impacting their psyche or pissing them off.

Perhaps it's not surprising that music can often serve as a lightning rod for both reasoned debate and borderline psychotic, overly emotional arguments. Music defines who we are, how we perceive both ourselves and others, and shapes the memories we keep in our various addled brains.

Or maybe it's just that, as someone recently said to me, "All you music freaks are batshit crazy."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Belle and Sebastian: The BBC Sessions

Belle and Sebastian's latest release, The BBC Sessions, is a collection of, that's right, BBC sessions culled from various radio performances from 1996-2001. Consisting of songs recorded for Mark Radcliffe, Steve Lamacq, and Saint John Peel, it's a solid but oftentimes bland and uninspiring release. Initial copies (for the cool kids, I suppose) also include a bonus disc of a 2001 Christmas concert from Belfast.

Though a couple of the songs included do venture away their album counterparts, the release's biggest drawback is that the majority of songs included are nearly identical to the studio versions, both lyrically and musically. In fact, anyone except the most dedicated and hardcore Belle and Sebastian fans would likely be hard pressed to easily distinguish these radio versions from those released on the band's studio albums.

Of course, most of the songs are good enough to allow the listener to occasionally look past this problem. Opening track "The State I Am In" is a solid start, if only for classic, despicable and selfishly hilarious lines like "My brother had confessed he was gay / It took the heat off me for a while" and "I was moved to kick the crutches from my crippled friend." "Like Dylan In the Movies," "Judy and the Dream of Horses," and "The Stars of Track and Field" - three songs from the band's most successful and obscenely worshiped album, If You're Feeling Sinister -follow, but are also damn near carbon copies of the versions from that indie object of reverence. Singer Stuart Murdoch's vocals and the band's arrangements are a bit like staring at your twin brother: The differences are hard to find without uncomfortably close scrutiny. Though I'm certainly not asking for any type of techno-thrash-pop interpretation of the songs, the performances come across as too staid and predictable.

One of the big attractions for the band's most dedicated fans here is the inclusion of four oft-bootlegged tracks recorded for Peel in 2001, with this release marking the first time these songs have been officially available. Each of these songs shows Belle and Sebastian evolving beyond their "signature" sound, with uneven and mixed results. "Shoot the Sexual Athlete" is kinda funky in a meek way, and also contains enough musical references to allow the listener to at least momentarily geek out. "The Magic of a Kind Word" is incredibly poppy and plays like a pastiche of bubblegum pop songs, or, perversely, something from The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family. The final two previously unreleased songs, "Nothing In the Silence" and "(My Girl's Got) Miraculous Technique," are tedious and somewhat plodding.

This release is perhaps best left for the wee-bit twee completists out there. Though most of the song choices are solid (the less said about the saccharine, overly-nasal, so-tender-it-makes-James-Taylor-sound-like-a-badass "Seymour Stein" the better), this release isn't a landmark entry in Belle and Sebastian's catalog. Its primary shortcoming is that the quality of the songs isn't enough to shake the listener's from feeling that this road's been stomped before, and with much better flow and cohesiveness, on the band's studio releases. Of course there's a fine line between a band playing to its strengths by maintaining its style and that band butchering its songs in the name of experimentation and artistic growth. Still, The BBC Sessions relies too heavily on playing it safe; the end result is a collection of songs performed with very little sense of surprise or adventure.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Music Review - Wilderness - (k)no(w)here

James Johnson sounds deranged, like a stark raving mad psychotic shouting at bystanders on a downtown corner during rush hour. On Wilderness' latest album (k)no(w)here, he variously yelps and chants against a relentless and pounding onslaught of guitars and drums; though the vocals are frequently unintelligible, it's pretty obvious Johnson isn't singing about puppy dogs and romantic strolls in the park. It's an album of foreboding and menace, with enough dread to darken even the most cockeyed optimist's day.

The Baltimore-based band's third full-length album was envisioned as a single musical piece, inspired by a collaboration with artist Charles Long at the Whitney Biennial earlier in the year. The eight "songs" on (k)no(w)here are indeed structured like parts of a larger whole: one song transitions into the next one without any break, guitar and bass lines and drum beats recur and repeat throughout both the individual songs and across the album, and Johnson's vocal stylings (if that's the right word) are consistent throughout.

With Colin McCann on guitar and occasional background vocals, Brian Gossman on bass and William Goode on drums, the music is aggressive and direct; there are very few extraneous notes or special musical pops and clicks here. The music isn't suffocated under a heap of unnecessary musical filler; it's a noisy album that somehow still manages to sound uncluttered and almost minimalist. It's mostly loud as hell, sure, but not because piles of instrumental garbage were thrown on top.

The instruments are cleanly separated yet interweave to create the album's unifying sound. McCann's guitar figures prominently on nearly every track, such as in the sharp and ringing repetition of "(p)ablum" and "Soft Cage," the stabbing and jagged accents of "Silver Gene" and "Own Anything," and the cutting and deliberate guitar melodies carved out on "Chinese Whisperers." Much-maligned bassists and drummers can console themselves with "(p)ablum" and closing track "...^...," both of which feature a prominent base line and tribal drumming reminiscent of Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones.

A smooth crooner Johnson is not; his vocals vacillate between unhinged shouts and screams on "Soft Cage" and "Own Anything" to the wordless and indecipherable chants on "Chinese Whisperers." His vocals are sometimes dragged out slower than the music, words being stretched to their breaking point and oddly enunciated. Certain phrases are repeated until they sound like either the rantings of a schizophrenic carnival barker or the awful truths shouted by someone who knows the score.

In keeping with previous albums, especially Vessel States, the songs can be read as political or social critiques (and it's especially tempting to interpret the album this way, in light of its Election Day release date). What's especially noticeable is the underlying tone of impending disaster and unavoidable catastrophe that runs throughout the album. Whatever the songs are specifically about, it's pretty apparent that all sorts of bad shit's about to go down, and consider yourself warned. "Here comes the new law" Johnson declares in "Strand the Test of Time," ending with a warning to "Look out / History is on the rise." Closing track "...^..." degenerates into similar warning, this time via a demented chant of "Cover your head / Swing low!"

If Wilderness can be faulted for anything on (k)no(w)here, it's that the band is sometimes overly reminiscent of groups like PiL, The Pop Group circa Y, Fugazi, and, to my ears at least, The Jesus Lizard. Still, this is a minor complaint; (k)no(w)here is a challenging and innovative album that deserves notice, even if the whole shithouse is about to go up in flames.

Music Review: Future Clouds and Radar - Peoria

Future Clouds & Radar’s self-titled debut album was an ambitious and ballsy 27-song behemoth. At its best it was bold, experimental, and melodic indie-pop, with cryptic, sometimes mysterious lyrics and a mind-numbing number of musical styles synthesized into a creative and adventurous mixture.

Though its musical influences were sometimes too obvious – singer and lyricist Robert Harrison and the rest of the band clearly studied hard at Beatles U and probably minored in Guided By Voices. – its major flaw was that its sheer volume of material frequently varied in quality. For this reason comparisons to warts-and-all albums like The White Album and Sandinista were on target. It begged to be paired down and to have the fat trimmed (even the most successful giant albums contain some stink bombs; the Holy Grail in indieland, The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, would probably have been better as 60 Love Songs). Either a simple coincidence noticed by geeky music critics or tacit acknowledgment that this debut album was overly stuffed and jammed up with musical ideas, Future Clouds and Radar’s follow-up album Peoria checks in at just eight songs in under 35 minutes. Though musically reminiscent of that debut album – that Beatles influence hasn’t faded, and some of the songs are still saturated with a whole wonderful mess of guitars, horns, keyboards, beats, creeks, cracks, sci-fi noises, and claps – Peoria is more refined, direct, and accessible. It even contains identifiable themes that connect the songs.

Though the songs still contain a lot of instrumentation, there’s more breathing room this time around. Even better, the genre-hopping is more successful and less forced and self-indulgent than on the band’s sprawling debut. Several songs are simply built around guitars, keyboards, and strings, which gives the melodies a more prominent role than before; the album ends with a long instrumental section that nicely sums up the various musical tricks and traits employed throughout. If snatches of some songs are perhaps still too experimental for their own good – the opening horns on “Eighteen Months” are damn cheesy and the space alien noises on the last few minutes of “Mummified” are a bit excessive – overall the release places “traditional” melodies on an even playing field with the band’s more out-there tendencies.

The songs’ shimmering arrangements are sharply contrasted by the album’s mostly bleak subject matter. Much of the album can be interpreted as ruminations on mortality, isolation, and loneliness disguised as love songs (“We’re only dust,” Harrison deadpans in “Mummified”). Images of death, war, and violence run through nearly every song; it’s a veritable audio bone yard. “The Epcot View” references a “dark prince…licking the bones of his very last foe,” “Old Edmund Ruffin” opens with the heartwarming story of a drowned mockingbird, and in “The Mortal” Harrison sings about someone’s dream of being “alone on antipathy island surrounded by bitters and bones.” The album also includes enough mentions of burials and funerals to make an undertaker giddy, including the “victory coffin” of “Follow the Crane” and the lovely romantic sentiment Harrison expresses in “Mummified”: “there’s room for both of us/ in my cool sarcophagus.” Though Harrison’s lyrics are sometimes open-ended and allow some light to creep in, however uneasily or uncertain – closing track “Follow the Crane” implies a sense of fidelity and devotion in the face of death – the lyrics are mostly dark. “We all crawled like dogs from cradle to grave,” Harrison declares in “Mortal,” a humorless sentiment that is dominant throughout the album. Although Peoria wears its musical influences proudly, it’s still an exciting and musically textured album that shows Future Clouds and Radar effectively applying a more sophisticated instrumental and lyrical focus.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Music Review - Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums - Dark Developments

For anyone who’s still clinging to the image of Vic Chesnutt as a mostly-acoustic Southern gothic folkie, it’s time to give that idea up. Though his earliest albums were often rooted in such sensibilities – debut album Little in particular – there’s always been a strong current of experimentalism and electricity scattered throughout Chesnutt’s canon. Though such songs were usually structured around mostly-acoustic melodies and traditional structures with Chesnutt’s ragged voice often providing a sharp contrast, others like “Drunk” and “Old Hotel” hinted at such harder edges.

Chesnutt’s last couple releases have made these edges more obvious, albeit to mixed results. Ghetto Bells, which to these damaged ears sounded willfully difficult and today still comes across as mostly ponderous and plodding, found the musician experimenting heavily with various musical textures and production techniques. 2007’s North Star Deserter is perhaps Chesnutt’s most musically aggressive and abrasive album to date. Though that album sported the occasional downbeat song, it was overwhelmingly a damn loud record, full of distortion and other noises that made all the windows in the neighborhood shake.

Dark Developments combines these disparate aspects of Chesnutt’s music and also adds some new tricks along the way. Assisted by (genuflect please) Elf Power and frequent backing band, the Amorphous Strums, it’s the most accessible and consistently good album Chesnutt’s released since The Salesman and Bernadette. Those Vicophiles who still prefer his more melodic songs as well as those who take their Vic with a heavy dose of electricity will both be satisfied.

What’s most noticeable on this album is the way subtle melodies and background vocals are mixed with muscular and sometimes harsh musical arrangements. Nearly every song features a full onslaught of such vocals, which both compliment the melodies and reinforce the collaborative nature of the album. You won’t find many “Dodge” moments here; Chesnutt’s voice is usually just one of many throughout these songs. “Teddy Bear,” “Bilocating Dog,” and “And How” are close to being group sing-alongs, though the subject matter is a far cry from your classic community Kumbayas.

Other songs augment these backing vocals with enough distortion, fuzz, and noise to ensure some ruptured eardrums when played at maximum volume. The subtly-titled “Little Fucker” barrels in with harsh and loud guitars like a kick upside the head. “We Are Mean” carries a similarly aggressive tone; the last minute or so of the song is a racket of swirling noise. Whereas North Star Deserter sometimes seemed to intentionally disregard melody just for the sake of clang-boom-steam, even the louder songs this time around accentuate each song’s melody.

Though playing the game of lyrical analysis is always dicey, some themes recur throughout the album. Several songs are built around wholesome things like anger, disgust, and cynicism. Chesnutt sneers a litany of insults in “Little Fucker,” leaving the unnamed F-bomber in question to “Dry up in the sun/Like a raisin/Or a leather skeleton,” derisively concluding, “He’s good riddance.” In the wryly humorous and bouncy “And How,” Chesnutt takes some more shots at a hapless victim, suggesting that the individual “Open up your trash/Then go take a bath/You’ll need one.”

Like many of Chesnutt’s earlier songs, this release is rife with images of death and decay, often accompanied with dark humor. “Stop the Horse” references a possibly deceased politician whose age might now be counted in dirt years, with Chesnutt singing that he “Can already smell the county bloat.” The upbeat singing of “Teddy Bear” betrays the bleak statement that “He ain’t never coming back;” though who or what the Teddy Bear refers to is open to interpretation.

“Bilocating Dog” is pure dark comedy, complete with a morbid sense of humor and skewed rhyme scheme: “Johnny was a terrier/He had his first seizure/At the feet of old Auntie Lee/You should of heard her screaming.” It should also be noted that this emphasis on death is reflected in the album’s artwork; the painting included on the back cover, with its numerous political undertones, is itself worthy of close examination.

Though some of the new songs are occasionally reminiscent of Chesnutt’s previous songs – opening track “Mystery,” with is prominent harmonica and minimal instrumentation, wouldn’t be out of place on Is the Actor Happy? – Dark Developments marks a noticeable stylistic shift for the artist. Chesnutt’s singing becomes more controlled with each subsequent album; the days when he’d stretch a word like “Florida” into 14 syllables accompanied by sparse instrumentation are long gone. With musical and vocal assists from Elf Power and the Amorphous Strums, the album successfully merges Chesnutt’s penchant for melody with his more experimental and electric tendencies.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Music Review - Sleepy John Estes - On 80 Highway

Recorded just three years before his death in 1977 (Elvis Presley wasn’t the only musician of note to die that year), On 80 Highway is a collection of 17 studio tracks by blues vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Sleepy John Estes. Accompanied by longtime cohort Hammie Nixon on vocals, harmonica, and that most underrated of instruments, the kazoo, Estes offers rough and evocative interpretations of traditional songs, as well as a couple of his own songs.

First the obvious: this CD most likely will not appeal to a wide audience; it’s not going to set the charts aflame and it’s probably not going to posthumously catapult Estes into the spotlight. You won’t hear these songs during a particularly heart-wrenching and overwrought emotional moment on one of the many current indistinguishable television dramas, nor will any of these songs make the cut on the next Guitar Hero video game. But for fans of blues music or those simply interested in the rich history of how traditional songs are reinvented and reworked, On 80 Highway is a welcome release.

In many ways the album falls neatly within the boundaries of the blues, both in terms of subject matter and style. Songs like “Holy Spirit,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” and “Do Lord Remember Me” cover familiar religious ground, two versions of “President Kennedy” are reminders as to how the blues could be both topical and political, and songs like “Corrine Corrina’ and “Mary Come On Home” are laments for the gal who got away. The specter of death is overtly invoked in some of the songs – Estes’ aggressive take on “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead” in particular – while Estes’ own “Brownsville Blues” also hints at mortality. And in true blues fashion, there’s also at least one bawdy and suggestive track as well, in the form of “Potatoe (Dan Quayle alert!) Diggin’ Man.”

The traits that defined Estes as a unique bluesman are apparent throughout the session. His guitar playing, never considered to be outstanding or top-notch, is passable but rough, with the occasional bum chord being noticeable. In many ways this warts-and-all approach actually enhances this release; it captures the singer at a particular moment of time, seemingly unconcerned with such technical shortcomings.

Though Nixon provides excellent textures to many of the songs – his harmonica and kazoo playing ranges from subtle and reserved to frenzied and manic, and also compensates for the singer’s sometimes shaky guitar work – Estes’ unique voice is what really carries these songs. Estes’ approach has often been described as “crying the blues,” which is still an apt description. His voice carries an emotional weight to it; in his mid-70s at the time of this recording, Estes’ voice is plaintive, weathered, and worn.

The album also offers interested fans another chance to revisit Estes’ often-tragic life. Completely blind at the time of this recording, Estes lived in poverty and anonymity in Brownsville, Tennessee for much of his life. Because he tended to sing like an old man, even in his youth, it was assumed that he had been dead for years as he seemingly dropped off the blues map (Samuel Charters and blues historian Bob Koester, who provides liner notes for this release, are credited with “finding” Estes in 1962 and getting him to resume recording and touring). After a long professional recording and touring career that started in the 1920s, Estes died of a stroke in 1977.

While some blues aficionados might argue that On 80 Highway doesn’t carry the power and emotional qualities of Estes’ earlier songs (his recordings for Victor Records, Decca, and Bluebird still sound relevant today), it’s still a welcome release for one of the blues genre’s most enigmatic and fascinating figures.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Music Review - Skeletons - Money

Sometimes you just need a relaxing, gentle and unobtrusively quiet album. Something to calm your nerves, convince you the world isn't heading straight for the shitter and reinforce your belief that the mortal coil to which you're currently attached won't spiral hopelessly out of control as you sleep at night. Something that raises your spirits, keeps the wolves (at least momentarily) at the door, and maybe even brings a few laughs or moments of joy, however fleeting or temporary.

Money, the latest release from indie band Skeletons, is not that album.

Abrasive and jarring, with enough abrupt musical stops, starts and stylistic changes to give the listener an acute case of vertigo, it's an unsettling and disorienting listen. It blends guitars, drums, keyboards and a small army of horns with experimental electronic noises and beats, often mashed into disquieting throb. Yet if you're wired a certain way - and if you're reading this review on this particular website, you probably are - it's an innovative, compelling and addictive album.

The band, founded by lead singer Matt Mehlan and at this time including Jon Leland, Tony Lowe, and Jason McMahon, has certainly traversed such ground previously. 2005's Git and 2007's Lucas both relied heavily on divergent musical styles and movements within their songs; no sooner was a particular melody or rhythm established before it was violently abandoned in favor of a new one. Though both those albums occasionally sounded almost overly clinical in their precision and instrumental contrasts, suggesting an inordinate amount of post-production "fine-tuning," they were still unique enough to warrant some much-deserved attention in indie circles.

For the most part, {Money} is more successful in this atmospheric approach than those two previous albums; it sounds rawer and less polished, even if the press release's claim that the album was recorded live is a tough sell.

The album carries an air of claustrophobia; opening track "Fill My Pockets Full" repeats a monotonous keyboard line against a backdrop of bleating car horns. Other tracks reinforce the sudden and unnerving musical shifts that characterize much of the album. "The Things," "Ripper a.k.a. The Pillows," "Stepper a.k.a. Work" and "Eleven (It'll Rain!)" incorporate horns, drums and guitars with various electronic noises and pulses in a repeating pattern only to short-circuit before the listener has a chance to get grounded, each song shifting to disparate and often violent new musical thoughts. Mehlan's falsetto voice creates an odd effect against the music; at times somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke, he tends to sing at the same pace regardless of the instrumentation.

These various musical ticks and tendencies are most successfully synthesized on the near-12 minute "Booom! (Money)." The song opens with guitars, drums and a shitload of electronic pops and clicks to simulate what sounds like cash registers, Mehlan's voice slightly above the fracas, until the song dissolves into a cacophony of noise that lasts for damn near seven minutes. Through either sheer coincidence or intent, the song (like much of the album) implies a long list of impeccable influences: Velvet Underground, Dub Housing-era Pere Ubu, and especially the Stooges (in this case, "L.A. Blues").

Along with plenty of references to the almighty baksheesh, the lyrics reflect the restlessness and dissatisfaction implied in the song's frequently shifting instrumental textures. "Stepper a.k.a. Work" includes enough angst and pessimism to make every aging flannel-clad grunge obsessive proud. "What I thought I wanted was a little bit of hope," Mehlan deadpans, concluding with the cheery statement that "I'm gonna get paid enough to survive / So that I quit complaining for once in my life."

Other songs imply that coping with daily life requires a fair amount of self-delusion; "There is a simple way to get through the day / If you like magic tricks," Mehlan advises in the choir-like chant of "Unrelentinglessness." The album's outlook is bleak; "The Things" references "dead men stuck to the river's floor," while the album's closing track, with its snarled and distorted repeated warning of "it'll rain", sounds like an unavoidable statement of impending doom. "Get your suntan while you still can," Mehlan warns.

If you're over a certain age and your last name isn't Waits, this album might seem best suited for use in driving brutal dictators out of hiding. Certainly it's a loud and intense album whose many instrumental shifts border on being sadistic. It's disorienting and unsettling, and will likely cause a sustaining ringing in your ears. And that's a good thing.

Music Review – Lucinda Williams – Little Honey

How do I put this? The latest release from Lucinda Williams, Little Honey, drips with enough romantic schmaltz to make Romeo seem like a lightweight and to keep Pepto Bismol in business well into the next millennium. It's the second consecutive underwhelming album from the normally reliable musician; her previous effort, West, was the first real dud of her career and one of the worst directionally-named albums this side of Elvis Costello's pseudo-jazz groaner North. Though Williams bristled in various interviews that fans and critics never really gave that album a fair chance, to these ravaged ears the criticism was mostly well-founded. West was simply a dull and listless album.

As Williams readily acknowledges, many of the songs on Little Honey are unabashedly borne out of recent positive events in her personal life: specifically, she's cuckoo for producer and fiancé Tom Overby. Which is wonderful news; as the old bluesman once sang, everybody needs somebody. But make for an outstanding album it does not.

Opening track "Real Love" kicks off this saccharine fest with rollicking guitars reminiscent of other songs from Williams' back catalog. Throughout the album, the band gives it their best shot (badass drummer Butch Norton in particular), but the song's maudlin sentiment kills any momentum the music attempts to establish. As if to make the song's message painfully clear (for those of you who weren't paying attention), Williams uses the big L word a whopping 28 times.

Other songs also reflect this theme but take a much more deliberate musical approach. "Tears of Joy," "The Knowing," and "Rarity" each plod along at an agonizingly slow pace, with no real payoff. In particular, "Rarity" seems much longer than its already hefty eight-minute running time and ensures that the album's overall pace remains sporadic and dodgy. The three songs also sound remarkably similar, with only the occasional instrumental flourish or background vocal (including some truly over-the-top ones on "Tears of Joy") to distinguish one from the other.

What also makes this album so frustrating is that there are some solid songs scattered amongst the detritus. "Honey Bee" is perhaps the most ballsy and aggressive song Williams has ever recorded. It's damn loud - drums and a whole mess of guitars flail away as the singer practically shouts some suggestive lyrics that would make puritans in the audience blush. "Jailhouse Tears" is a humorous and somewhat poignant story of a "three-time loser" and his long-suffering significant other. Sung as a duet with Costello and wearing its country music influences proudly, the singers each offer their side of the story; Costello's assertion of "Look at me/ I'm clean now" is wryly dismissed by Williams' unconvinced female character: "You're so full of shit."

Other songs such as"If Wishes Were Horses" and "Circles and X's" are supported by gorgeous melodies and deal in the usual topics of broken hearts and fractured relationships that Williams has mined on previous albums. "Circles and X's," written all the way back in 1985 is a moving snapshot of a relationship on the skids and is the album's standout track. "The vows have all been broken" the narrator laments as her man heads for the door, poetically noticing how "sunlight reflects off the silver" on the man's finger.

These moments are unfortunately rare on Little Honey; its meandering and lovey-dovey songs are always lurking around the corner like the crazy uncle you're trying to avoid at the family reunion. And like that crazy uncle, once you run into these songs it's a total buzzkill. This isn't to say that Williams should create Car Wheels On a Gravel Road II either, nor does it mean criticism of this release is nothing more than complaining by Gravel Roadites clamoring for such a sequel. Certainly it's always nice to see an artist with an established reputation and musical style attempt new things, both musically and thematically. But sometimes those attempts fall short of the mark and the results are underwhelming. Little Honey is such an album.

Music Review – Various Artists – Johnny Cash Remixed

At the current rate, the number of posthumous Johnny Cash releases will soon surpass those that were released while the Man in Black was on this mortal coil. Perhaps this is to be expected; the music icon is now a veritable, uh, cash machine, and apparently there's a thirsty market for this material, much of which is previously-available material recycled and repackaged in new formats. These various releases have run the gamut from essential (Personal File is a must for any Cash fan) to the completely pointless (Chapter and Verse is nothing more than a reissued version of Cash reading from the King James bible, and a law should be passed to stop the ongoing flood of Cash Greatest Hits albums).

Johnny Cash Remixed falls somewhere in between. A collection of various hip hop artists performing remixed versions of both Cash standards and a few of his more obscure songs, it's not exactly a curiosity piece, but also isn't required listening for either Cash or rap fans. Equal parts exciting and creative, frustrating and absurd, it's an interesting but uneven take on how Cash's patented spare and stripped down music can be manipulated and bent to fit a completely disparate musical genre.

The most successful remixes are those that attempt to place Cash's songs in a modern context, either by adding lyrics that compliment the original words or by applying various beats, thwacks, and thumps to the melodies. Opening track "I Walk the Line" is reworked by QDT and Snoop Dogg into a mellow take on commitment and walking the straight and narrow. Excusing the usual business where Snoop announces his name at least once in every track he's involved in (which I suspect is actually required by his contract), he adds new lyrics that fit well within the song's context.

Alabama 3's remix of "Leave That Junk Alone," Kennedy's version of "Sugartime" and The Heavy's take on "Doin' My Time" incorporate driving rhythms that place the original songs' somewhat subdued instrumentation much higher in the mix. Alabama 3 also transforms the song into a modern cautionary tale about addiction and excess, with a set of original lyrics that show how some of Cash's most well-worn themes are remarkably similar to those found throughout the hip hop genre. In this version, Cash plays the role of bartender, preacher and all-around voice of reason; it's the album's most creative and striking interpretation as it bridges the vast stylistic differences between country and hip hop to find common ground in a shared subject matter.

The rest of the album's remixes are largely rote: vocals are distorted and clipped, certain lines or phrases are repeated ad nausea and throbbing beats you wouldn't want to hear first thing in the morning in the grip of a hangover continue without mercy. Philip Steir's take on "Get Rhythm" is pure twitchy starts and stops (ironic considering the song's title). Yet perhaps the most egregious offender is Sonny J's remix of "Country Boy." Complete with some truly heinous and overwrought background vocals, it bears a disturbing similarity to Will Smith's "Getting Jiggy With It." If there's a Hell, my guess is that this song is played on an endless loop.

These turds in the Cristal also unintentionally raise those pesky questions about how an icon's musical legacy should be preserved and interpreted posthumously. Though Cash's son John Carter is listed as one the three executive producers, it's probably fair to ask how much more can be bled from the stone. Ignoring the baksheesh-based motives that cynical fans rightly question, the seemingly endless compilations and reissues that are expurgated out on an annual basis still have some merit: if anything, they provide Cash novices with a vast number of starter kits from which to choose.

Nevertheless, it's hard to find much merit in this release. Though a few of the artists included succeed in the difficult balancing act of providing a hip hop perspective on Cash's country songs while also maintaining his overarching themes and characteristics, too many of the tracks are indistinguishable from the generic approaches so often applied to remixes. Fans looking for a consistently good album that reinterprets the music of Johnny Cash will ultimately be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Interview with Paul Trynka, author of Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed

In his revealing and detailed biography Open Up and Bleed, Paul Trynka examines the life of Jim Osterberg, better known to music fans as Iggy Pop. Trynka, formerly the reviews editor of Mojo magazine from 1999 to 2003, uses both previously-available information and new interviews he conducted to create an exhaustive, informative, and sometimes startling character study of one of music’s most celebrated and notorious personas. In the following interview, Trynka discusses a variety of Iggy-related topics, including the nature of this persona and the toll it took on the musician’s mental state, the musician’s intense ambition and lasting musical legacy, and why an Iggy Pop tune just might be the single worst song of the 1980s.

Blogcritics (BC): A central theme of the book is the contrast between Jim Osterberg as a person and Iggy Pop as a musical persona. In many ways it’s hard to reconcile the polite, articulate, and almost genteel Jim Osterberg vs. the wild madman of Iggy Pop. Do you think it reached a point where the person was indistinguishable from the persona?

Paul Trynka (PT): The classic moment when Jim Osterberg lost control of Iggy Pop was, I think, when he was hospitalized in 1974. Although he was diagnosed with hypomania, a bipolar condition, the psychiatrist who treated him now thinks his problems were simply a product of his extravagant drug intake – and his out of control personae. Of course, it was gratifying to have a clinician confirm what others had suspected, and justify what became a central premise of the book.

BC: What do you think the biggest influences were in shaping this persona? Various people quoted in the book offer up a host of reasons for the musician’s behavior.

PT: Quite simply, it was audience hostility. Jim Osterberg took his ‘art’ very seriously – and when the early audiences rejected him, or mocked him, the Iggy character became a kind of psychic armor. It helped a lot – for a while. But, just as in the best, and worst, horror movies, the creation began to take on a life of its own.

BC: You suggest that maintaining this persona eventually began to take its toll on Osterberg’s mental state.

PT: Well, eventually the man had what was essentially a mental breakdown, and became a forlorn, pathetic figure. But I think it wasn’t so much maintaining the persona that caused the breakdown, as coping with his own apparent failure. Because Jim Osterberg was a very ambitious guy.

BC: This persona is one of the most infamous in music history. In the various interviews and research you conducted for the book, how difficult was it to sort the facts from the myths?

PT: After a while, you develop a nose for the stories that aren’t true, and of course there was endless cross-checking. I felt horrendously guilty about going back to people again and again to refine a story – but did it nonetheless. That said, there were events where different people’s accounts were simply incompatible, so I’d simply choose one person’s version and construct my account from that, mentioning this in the notes. Along the way, I had to drop a lot of juicy stories that turned out to be fictitious – but then I found just as many juicy new ones, including Iggy’s bizarre involvement with voodoo practitioners in Haiti!

BC: The book offers an overall sympathetic depiction of the musician, yet there are still plenty of unflattering moments included.

PT: Of course I felt a duty to be honest, to illustrate a man who was, in terms of dealing with other people, almost entirely selfish. But his gift to other people, to all of us, was his music – and, of course, the person who suffered most in the making of it was himself.

BC: What was the most thrilling or memorable thing about seeing Iggy Pop perform? What was the atmosphere like?

PT: Those who saw him in the 60s and 70s describe a visceral thrill and excitement – and also fear, that sense that anything could happen. Even today, you get a sense of that. I found it absolutely inspiring how he’s still borne along on the music, how this 60 year-old gentleman with a bad limp becomes a carefree child, skipping onto the stage like a spring lamb.

BC: Even now, the way he would confront the audience seems startling. It’s hard to imagine any band today doing this.

PT: I guess I've seen plenty of bands out on the edge, with the sense that it could all fall apart at any moment – that’s what makes music exciting. But these days, it seems like it’s simply a career that’s at stake; in Iggy’s prime, it seemed like it was his life that was at stake.

BC: Many times Iggy Pop seemed on the verge of mainstream success, both with The Stooges and later as a solo artist, yet it eluded him. What do you think were the major factors that contributed to this?

PT: They say pioneers get all the arrows. I think that’s true. It’s generally the band who put a gloss on something new who clean up in the charts. But it’s always the pioneers that are remembered, a decade or two on. Today, who remembers that Pat Boone had more pop hits than Little Richard?

BC: The drug use documented in the book is pretty staggering, and it’s been suggested that The Stooges’ music would have sounded far different without chemical assistance.

PT: A lot of their inspiration came from drugs – they certainly wouldn’t have sounded the same, and likely wouldn’t have sounded as good, without it. But it was a Faustian pact that left two bassists dead, plus plenty of other friends.

BC: David Bowie’s motives in hooking up with Iggy Pop have been questioned for years. What’s your take?

PT: The quick answer is that, first time around, their friendship benefited David, and that second time around, it benefited Iggy. But it’s more complex than that. I think Iggy’s own description of David, when he first met him, is pretty apposite. He called him “a not unkind person.”

BC: Has the Stooges’ limited recorded output somehow enhanced their legacy? Music fans sometimes find the idea of a band that releases a few brilliant albums, lives like complete lunatics for a while, and then flames out quickly quite romantic.

PT: Well, yes, that’s a large part of their appeal, that they had three albums that were, in a fucked-up kind of way, absolutely perfect. We don’t need anything else to justify their existence.

BC: Who did you find was the most surprising band or artist to cite The Stooges as an influence?

PT: I remember Robbie Williams namechecked him to me once. Go figure.

BC: Favorite Iggy Pop/Stooges album and song?

PT: It changes every day... I'll say Raw Power, because I’m in a London frame of mind at the moment. And the song would be “Success,” which (in the supreme example of ‘critics’ being wannabe musicians) I sang for my wife at our wedding two weeks ago!

BC: Least favorite Iggy Pop/Stooges album and song?

PT: There is a particularly horrible song called “Happy Man” – a few correspondents have attempted to get me to back down, but I maintain not only is it the worst song in Iggy’s catalogue, it’s one of the worst songs of the 1980s, and that’s saying something.

BC: Any particular favorite stories or anecdotes about Iggy Pop that either did or didn’t get included in the book?

PT: I remember doing a photo shoot with him in the mid 90s, in the Lower East Side on a sweltering hot day. There was a broken fire hydrant spouting water, and we were asking him to splash himself. Some local wags saw what was happening, sneaked up behind with a cold bucket of water and emptied it over him. I still have the photos that show him laughing. Whatever his faults, I can’t imagine anyone else doing the same.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Music Review - Various - 100 Greatest

An ambitious release from the Shout Factory label, 100 Greatest is a collection of, um, 500 audio clips of some of the most memorable and culturally-impacting speeches, events, pop culture figures, sports moments, and sleazy scandals of the last 100-plus years. With a primary focus on Western (i.e., American) history, and featuring an impressive amount of primary source material, it’s an outstanding and nearly exhaustive overview of the highs, lows, and in-betweens of the last century.

Organized thematically across five discs (with each disc also available individually), this set is certainly a true niche market item; it’s highly doubtful those crazy kids who are busy listening to Jonas Brothers bootlegs or watching reruns of The Hills for the show’s subtle plot nuances will have much interest in this release. Of course, their teachers will, as will history dweebs (er, fans), pop culture buffs, and those hapless guys everywhere trying to convince their skeptical dates that they are true intellectuals.

Disc 1 focuses on speeches and is perhaps the most engaging piece of this box set. The oratorical masterpieces or otherwise noteworthy speeches one would expect to find are included here – Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, FDR’s “Day of Infamy” address after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 1968 eulogy for Robert Kennedy, and Bill Clinton’s 1992 speech at the Democratic National Convention – and are still both emotionally moving and good primers of what it takes to be a persuasive public speaker. Taken as a whole, this disc offers insights into both the art of public speaking and the impact these speeches had on a specific era.

News stories that gripped the world (many before the days of 24-hour news channels) make up disc 2; equal parts uplifting and sobering, this disc alternates between euphoric moments of human achievement and triumph over scumbags and examples of abject horror and tragedy that suggest Darwin might have been wrong. In most cases, the selections chosen paint a vivid picture of how the event was viewed in its immediate aftermath. A palpable sense of joy runs through the entries that recount the fall of the Berlin Wall and VE Day in World War II. Shock and sorrow are apparent when the various broadcasts and reports address tragedies like the 1999 Columbine shootings, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the many assassinations that are recounted here. As an audio record of such events this disc is indispensable, though it frequently makes for unsettling, and emotional, listening.

Disc 3 is a bit dodgier. Billed as the 100 greatest personalities, the disc includes many of the usual suspects – Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Winston Churchill, and, er, Wernher von Braun, among others – but still excludes many historical figures. Perhaps this is inevitable; nevertheless, some the inclusions are fairly questionable – for example, cycling superman Lance Armstrong seems a much better fit on the disc 5. The exclusions could spark some serious debate; pick your favorite historical, musical, or cultural period and you will be able to name several people that “should” have been included.

Disc 4 tackles the 100 greatest scandals, itself a tough task given the seemingly endless nefarious plots, dirty deals, and shady shysters that have dotted the political and cultural landscape of the last 100 years. Undoubtedly there are enough scandals here to make a shady hedge fund manager or crooked politician proud, including the Clarence Thomas affair, the fall of Enron, and perhaps the gold standard of political scandals, the Watergate affair. Yet some of the inclusions are marginal at best, and the focus of the disc is weighted a bit too heavily on recent history; I suppose Alec Baldwin’s now infamous rant to his daughter is included for comedic relief. Other entries aren’t true scandals in the narrowest sense of the word and seem out of place here, such as Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Still, the disc is an enlightening, and in some ways perversely entertaining, look back at the parade of cons, crooks, and cheats that has marched through history.

Disc 5 includes audio clips from that most holy of sacred institutions: sports. Much of the attention is on baseball, including its dramatic highs (Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch in 1954 and gimpy Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series home run), lows (strikes in both 1981 and 1994), and several events that for some steroidal reason have clearly lost the luster they once had (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s historic 1998 seasons). Taken as a whole, this disc shows that some sports events have had a lasting cultural impact, outside of just being fodder for fantasy geeks. One doesn’t need to be a sports fanatic to enjoy this disc.

100 Greatest is a fascinating audio chronicle and is well worth the time it takes to listen to it. Although there are some shortcomings in this release – some of the inclusions and exclusions are debatable, the booklet is somewhat lacking in details, and the clips on each disc aren’t in any sort of chronological order – it is nevertheless a great snapshot of the key events and figures that have shaped modern history.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Music Review - Lambchop - OH (ohio)

Lambchop’s mix of musical genres still likely creates headaches for retailers when the shelves are being stocked. Even though the band’s lineup changes frequently (singer and lyricist Kurt Wagner being the obvious exception), the band has nevertheless developed a signature sound: a challenging and unique blend of country, alternative rock, folk, lounge, jazz, soul, and Antarctic steel drumming (well, maybe not this one yet). Coupled with Wagner’s untraditional voice – sometimes whispered or spoken or sung in such a way that it sounds like the words are being choked out from his throat and might not quite make it –it’s tough to think of many bands that incorporate so many disparate styles without sounding like a wretched mess of noise.

Their latest album, OH (ohio), continues this tradition of genre bending and is perhaps the band’s most melodic and understated album since 1996’s How I Quit Smoking. The first few songs float along at a relaxed, breezy, and mellow pace, with the band establishing both the tempo and instrumental quirks that run through much of the record. Opening track “Ohio” unfolds slowly with a subtle piano and guitar melody, with background vocals accompanying Wagner as he sings a variation on an old country conceit that “green doesn’t matter when you’re blue.” Second song “Slipped Dissolved and Loosed” likewise follows this pattern, utilizing another textured blend of guitar, keyboards, and background vocals.

Other songs have no background vocals but move at a similar restrained pace, this time placing the emphasis on Wagner’s voice as it alternately sings with or in front of the instruments. He kinda sorta croons on “Of Raymond,” which also features subdued horns and keyboards that provide additional textures to the song. “A Hold Of You” and closing song “I Believe In You” are also noticeably downbeat and slow; the former song also shows a touch of irony as Wagner sings that he’s “such a bad enunciator.”

Some of the faster songs provide a nice change of pace for the album. The humorously-titled “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” and “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.” are two such examples. Yet “Popeye” is a separate beast altogether. The album’s most experimental song – and those who like their Lambchop obtuse will likely get giddy over this one – its first few minutes lull the listener in with quiet keyboards and Wagner’s hushed vocals, unexpectedly giving way to a manic swirl of instrumental noise that comes on like a kick upside the head. Maybe it’s the sound of Popeye finally getting his spinach, who the hell knows.

As is to be expected with a Lambchop album, Wagner’s lyrics are vague. Perhaps not as obtuse as Nixon – supposedly a concept album that even included a related bibliography, it nevertheless doesn’t appear to have any solid connection whatsoever to the former president – the songs are nevertheless wide open to interpretation.

Themes of loneliness, aging, and separation are implied throughout the album, such as in “Ohio” and “Popeye.” Of course, the cause of the narrator’s woe is anyone’s guess; Wagner might as well be singing the blues because he’s lost his favorite trucker hat. “I’m Thinking of a Number (between 1 and 2)” covers this ground as well, albeit with heavy dose of bleakness and a pretty twisted sense of humor. If a sense of devotion is implied (“We can hold one another until the other is gone”), it comes with a catch as Wagner sings that “I won’t tell you that love is a variable thing/like the shape of your ass that I noticed when you walked away from me.”

It’s an interesting balancing act; the songs are detailed enough to offer hints of their themes and broader context, but the listener must be careful to avoid bastardizing the songs with the kind of wild interpretations usually reserved for college lit courses. Telling images and phrases are used to create a mood and provide glimpses into the songs themselves – “newspapers in an empty basket,” “the topography of your mind,” “a cocktail which consisted of his gin and her vermouth” – but only a fool would claim to know exactly what these songs are about.

OH (ohio) is a quietly insistent album. Though Wagner’s unique style of singing will make listeners lean in a bit more closely to understand the words, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, even though the music retailers still won’t be able to categorize the band.