Sunday, April 27, 2008

Concert Review: Okkervil River and New Pornographers - St. Louis, MO - April 19, 2008

Somehow I had managed to convince my wife that attending the Okkervil River/New Pornographers concert in St. Louis was the best way to spend our two-year anniversary. Certainly better than a quiet, romantic dinner and a few glasses of wine. After all, if spending an April night in a packed concert club with various hoody-wearing indie fans isn’t romantic, I don’t know what is.

I understood her trepidation; she hadn’t heard anything by Okkervil River, and her knowledge of the New Pornographers didn’t extend far beyond the song “Twin Cinema” and “that poppy song that was used in the University of Phoenix commercials.”

Top that off with several failed attempts to impose my musical tastes on her (“there’s no way you can’t like this"), and several brutal Bob Dylan concerts over the years (synopsis: sweltering St. Louis summer, lawn seating, and a dancing concert neighbor sporting what appeared to be a massive case of scabies), and the possibility of a disastrous evening was very real.

But a person unfamiliar with the musical performers brings something that those familiar with the band’s music sometimes lack: objectivity and a lack of preconceived notions. Chances are very good that if you really like the band on stage, nothing short of a complete disaster (chemically-disabled musicians, abysmal venue acoustics, or Woodstock 1994) will change your opinion about that band. You’ll enjoy the songs and be reminded of why you downloaded the latest album on the sly; maybe on the way out you’ll stop at the Merch stand and buy a size medium t-shirt that shrinks to the size of a postage stamp upon first washing. Roughly paraphrased, Bob Dylan once said in an interview that he plays for the people who don’t attend every concert and who might not be familiar with or fans of his music; those Dylanphiles who roam the world popping up at every Dylan show (and they are out there, living among us, biding their time, corrupting our children…) are already converted.

Applying this concept to the show at the Pageant Saturday night, both my wife and myself largely had the same experience and opinions for both bands: headlining act New Pornographers was solid and tight; opening act Okkervil River was nothing short of spectacular.It’s not that the New Pornographers mailed in the performance; far from it. The band was clearly energetic and enjoying themselves, and there were some musical highs. The live versions of songs from their latest, and underrated, album Challengers were played well enough, even if they didn’t sound much different from the actual album version. And a cover of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” unleashed the closet pogo dancers throughout the pit. The biggest letdown from their performance is that the band and their playing almost seemed too controlled, too proficient, too note-perfect. There weren’t many rough edges or new twists: just another day at the musical office.

This impression was at least partially shaped by Okkervil River’s standout opening performance. At times quiet and controlled, and other times unhinged and wild, the band delivered one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen at the Pageant.

Cramming songs from recent albums Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names into an hour-long set list, singer Will Sheff and the band delivered an emotional, sometimes theatrical performance that successfully communicated the themes that run throughout the band’s songs: life’s small disappointments (“Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe” and “A Girl In Port”), self-inflicted endings (“John Allyn Smith Sails”), and a whole mess of ugly emotions (“Black” and “A Stone”).My wife was hooked from the opening song (“The President’s Dead) and I suspect she wasn’t the only one. The band’s music and Sheff’s lyrics didn’t so much nudge us awake as they grabbed us by the throat. After an hour that seemed to pass all too soon the band was done and left to loud applause.

Despite both being indie bands, Okkervil River and the New Pornographers are far more different than similar. With their open-ended lyrics, catchy tunes, and controlled stage demeanor, the New Pornographers are somewhat traditional. Okkervil River’s lyrics tend to be more direct and attention-grabbing, and their music often veers into various styles and tempos. At the Pageant on Saturday night, each band played to their strengths. One band was solid. The other was spectacular.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Satire: Earthquake In Midwest Stirs Ghost of Iben Browning Vindicated

A 5.2 magnitude earthquake hit southern Illinois and eastern Missouri in the early morning hours of April 18, shaking windows, waking up people throughout the bi-state region, flooding police departments with panicked calls, and disturbing St. Louis' downtown drug peddlers who mistook the commotion for a police raid and frantically dropped their stashes.

Also, your mother called you during the quake to ask if the kids were okay, whether the doors were locked, and why you don't visit anymore.

No major structural damage has been reported thus far, however, several locals say they have been mentally traumatized by the event, and are also "quite disappointed that it was nothing like the earthquakes at that Richter's restaurant we ate at on vacation in Florida."

Other locals have vowed to take up arms against the city of Bellmont, where the quake was centered. "That city's been trouble ever since it added that second, unnecessary 'L' to its name," said Valley Park native Todd "Goober" Farkins. "It's because of that city's blatant arrogance in violating accepted rules of linguistics, and not the scientifically-explainable phenomenon of two tectonic plates moving apart near the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone that caused this."

Most dramatically, the ghost of Iben Browning emerged from a prolonged silence to announce the earthquake has vindicated his previous prediction made in 1990. Browning, who managed to create a sustained panic and all-around level of irrational stress in St. Louis and surrounding areas by claiming there was a 50% chance an earthquake would strike at the New Madrid fault line on December 2 or 3, 1990, quickly became the object of scorn and ridicule when his prediction failed to materialize. Not even being name-checked in the Uncle Tupelo song, "New Madrid," could repair his reputation in the Show Me State.

With this major, catastrophic quake that caused little damage to buildings and no serious reported injuries, Browning feels like a preening rooster and wants the world to acknowledge the accuracy of his prediction. Speaking from the Great Beyond, Browning had this to say: "I told anyone who would listen that the quake would happen. Sure I overshot it by nearly 20 years, and got the month and day wrong to boot, but the bottom line is that the event occurred."

Browning is also seeking gratitude from the people whose lives his bold prediction helped spare. "Back in 1990, schoolchildren were practicing earthquake drills by diving under desks, businesses shut down to prepare for the impending destruction, and insurance companies squealed like stuck pigs as Missourians bought earthquake insurance at premium rates. I have no doubt these knee-jerk reactions caused by my forecast saved countless lives in this recent quake."

Browning wants to reassure those traumatized by what he calls the "defining meteorological incident of the last 268 years" that the risk of another devastating quake is quite low. "Massive quakes hit about once every 500 years. The chance of another one occurring anytime soon is exceptionally unlikely. Besides, I'm the professional here. Trust me."

Book Review: 33 1/3 - Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones by David Smay

For better or worse, the entries in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series have a reputation of being serious, analytical, and largely humorless studies of various classic albums. While this approach is likely loved by an artist’s most dedicated fans ("100 pages about the musical techniques and literary themes of Double Nickels On The Dime? Sign me up"), it does run the risk of making the series inaccessible for casual music fans.

All of which makes David Smay’s take on Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones the bastard stepchild in the Continuum family. Simply put, Smay’s book is a great read for both serious Rain Dogs and casual music fans. It’s also damn funny. Taking a traditional approach by structuring his book according to the album’s songs, the end result is far from typical for 33 1/3: Smay is informative without being overly didactic and humorous without being overly snarky.

While the primary focus of Smay's book is Swordfishtrombones, he also manages to cover the various themes and styles that have characterized Waits’ music over the years in a unique way. Although the book is ordered according to the album’s songs, Smay expands the book’s scope to cover far more than just the album. In this way, his discussion of the song “Dave the Butcher” shows how images of slaughterhouses and butchers recur throughout several of Waits' songs. Likewise, Smay uses the song “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six” as a starting point for an interesting take on how images of crows and mules are used in various Waits songs. Sure it’s kinda geeky, perhaps even borderline psychotic, but an entire series of books that chronicle every burp and gaseous emission of an album is pretty geeky and psychotic.

Smay's book also partly serves as a non-chronological biography of Waits' life, and especially of the various creative, absurd, and laughably ridiculous myths and tall tales the musician has crafted and that some fans and critics have accepted as fact. Smay gets into these biographical details without coming across like a sleazy tabloid journalist or mediocre blogger writing a review of his book. He discusses the role of wife Kathleen Brennan in Waits’ life, and how various true-life details have found their way into the songs. The character in “Eyeball Kid” from Mule Variations has the same birthday as the singer, the Uncle Vernon referenced in “Cemetery Polka” is actually Waits’ uncle, and perhaps most despairingly, the Mathilda referenced in “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is based on a Danish singer who Waits drank with right around the time he hurled on his shoes. Smay also creates some new Waits myths; according to Smay, the musician “was born September 8, 1683, during the siege preceding the Battle of Vienna.” Sure it’s pure BS, but it works; in a clever way, Smay shows the reader both how Waits has essentially fabricated an alternative biography and how the various songs mix historical details and characters with wild fiction.

In many ways Smay’s book is actually a better study of Waits’ music and life than the few recent (and much longer) biographies. The major elements of Waits’ music, and how many of those elements originated with Swordfishtrombones, are all addressed with a mixture of well-researched information and hilarious anecdotes and interpretations. Smay doesn’t use boring, technical terms when describing the songs; instead, a song like “Underground” is explained as “black-hammered bastardy…Timed precisely to the throb in your temples, this may be one of the ten worst songs to wake up to with a hangover…somebody’s just dropped a toolbox on your head.” Unconventional perhaps, but this approach works.Waits fans will find plenty to like here. Even the most grizzled Rain Dog (you know the one…he wears his “Blue Valentines” t-shirt proudly and screams for “The Piano Has Been Drinking” at every Waits concert he attends) will find this an enlightening, engaging, and humorous read.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Satire: New Kids on the Block Defiant in Press Conference

In their first press conference since it was announced they would be reforming, late 1980s boy band and purveyors of all that is soulless and wrong in music New Kids On The Block discussed a wide range of topics Monday. These included their upcoming reunion tour, their place in music history, and the political, social, and cultural impacts of 19th century Utopian Socialist movements in modern Europe. Wait, scratch that last one.

Speaking to reporters from the EconoLodge just outside of Missoula, Montana, the five Kids – Jordan, Jonathan, Joey, Donnie, and, uh, Bashful – wanted to assure their long-time fans that it will be the same Teen Beat NKOTB they loved with lustful, pre-pubescent zeal back in the day.

Said Jordan: “Some have suggested our new sound will be influenced by the current popular music trends. Our fans will be pleased to know that it’s still 1989 to us: Bush is president, the Middle East is a boiling cauldron of chaos and violence, and the economy’s about to go in the shitter. Our new songs will have the same mediocre, innocuous, and ultra-Caucasian qualities that previously endeared us to so many.”

Many of the reporters’ questions centered around whether there is a market for the band in the 21st century. The band is convinced the world is ready for another rash of NKOTB-induced mania. According to Bashful, who remained strangely silent after answering just a few questions, “There hasn’t been a truly successful, vacuous, and empty-brained pop band in about 20 minutes. This is America baby. There’s always a market for us.” Bashful added, “I need to get out of this freakin hickburg. Bum a quarter for bus fare? Anyone?”

The band also used the press conference as a way to address its many detractors. Asked to respond to criticisms that the band is simply reuniting for the big concert paychecks, Jonathan said, “Sure the money that poured in years ago from posters, lunch boxes, action figures, strawberry-scented prophylactics, and toilet paper dispensers was nice. But it’s not about the green: we’re back to show everyone that we’re still the best five-piece, non-musical-instrument-playing band in the world.”

The band is also keenly aware that many people view the reunion as pointless. Joey was blunt in his assessment: “Mission of Burma, The Stooges, Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr. all reunited and nobody busted their balls. To my ears we’re just as good as them. What’s the difference between Doolittle and Hangin' Tough? Nothing.”The Kids are also comfortable with their place in music history. “We’ve blessed the world with offspring like 98 Degrees and the Backstreet Boys. And don’t even act like Nirvana didn’t borrow their subject matter from our back catalog. A subtle layer of angst and loathing ran through all our songs long before Cobain and those two other humps cashed in. Bastards should be paying us royalties,” Donnie stated.

This defiant attitude characterized the hour-long press conference; only when the motel’s manager reminded the Kids that “check-out time is at 11 am, and the room service wasn’t free” did the band lose their stride. Exiting to tepid applause and a selection from their 1989 Merry, Merry Christmas album, the band ended the press conference with a final impressive show of bravado. “It’s an NKOTB universe. All you slobs just live in it.”

Book Review: Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica (33 1/3) by Kevin Courrier

I can count the number of people I’ve met who have liked Trout Mask Replica upon first listen on one hand. Okay, on one finger. It’s one of those rare albums where every listener who hears it for the first time walks away saying it’s unlike anything they’ve heard before; the difference is whether they think it’s a masterpiece or a pile of garbage. Even for those listeners who like the album, it usually takes several listens to finally get on the Beefheart Express.

Kevin Courrier tackles Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s finest album in his 2007 entry into Continuum’s ever-expanding 33 1/3 series (next up: a six-volume series analyzing the works of Skid Row). The end result is an informative, if uneven, account of the origins, making, and legacy of one of music’s most challenging albums.

To say Courrier knows the material is an understatement; he covers in great detail everything from the band’s biography to how the album fit into the larger arena of avant-garde works by musicians like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. For a short book (less than 150 pages), the amount of quoted sources is impressive; a bibliography that includes more than just shady Beefheart internet fan sites is also included. For anyone looking for a one-stop shop that summarizes the history of the album and its conspirators, Courrier’s book is a great source.

One of the main storylines in the making of Trout Mask Replica is Beefheart’s documented Gestapo-like intimidation and domination of the band members, including cultish tactics like food and sleep deprivation and attempts at mind control. Courrier manages to discuss this without turning the book into a musical E! True Hollywood Story. While Courrier is clearly a fan of the album, he does offer an impartial, and often critical, portrayal of the reclusive Captain. He also rights some of the wrongs perpetuated against the band members by showing how the musicians played an integral role in the album’s music, dispelling the myth long propagated by both critics and Beefheart himself that the album was a work of Beefheart’s singular genius.

Nevertheless, Courrierr's 33 1/3 is flawed. Despite tons of details about the album, his ultimate conclusion never really advances past the argument that Trout Mask Replica is an atonal masterpiece unlike any other album and listeners either love it so much that they wet themselves or flee to the catacombs in abject horror, scarred for life by what they’ve just heard. It’s of course difficult to argue this point, but it doesn’t really add much to understanding or appreciating the album.

Details about the commercial and critical responses to the album are brief and perfunctory. Likewise, scant pages are devoted to how the album has influenced other musicians (by law and under penalty of banishment to Iowa, anyone discussing Trout Mask Replica is required to mention Tom Waits, and Courrier fulfills this obligation). With such few pages covering these topics, it seems they were included almost as an afterthought or as a way to pad the book’s length. Some of the details provided about Frank Zappa, Beefheart’s previous works, and other non-mainstream artists sometimes feel extraneous and unnecessary; a greater focus on the album’s lasting legacy and impact would have been more welcome.

Courrier notes that around 80,000 copies of Trout Mask Replica have been sold. Although this number seems low, he might be right: conduct an informal unscientific poll of “What do you think of Beefheart?” would likely return seven perplexed glances, one suggestion to do something physically impossible to yourself, and two beyond-inappropriate propositions.

Accepting Courrier’s number as accurate, it does show the difficulty in writing a book about Beefheart’s best album: those who don’t like or haven’t heard the album probably won’t care enough to buy 33 1/3, and those who like the album will expect the book to increase their understanding of the album. While Courrier’s study does a great job of examining the origins of Trout Mask Replica and its place in music history, hardcore Beefheart fans (is there any other kind?) probably already know the story.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Book Review: Doolittle by Ben Sisario

Several weeks back the local alternative music radio station here in St. Louis treated listeners to a “way back weekend.” Instead of hearing those godawful songs that pass for alternative music these days, listeners of a certain age could act like it was the early 1990s all over again, with songs by the good (Nirvana), the bad (Stone Temple Pilots), and the fugly (Bush).

Perhaps not surprisingly, absent from these 48 hours of grunge-era goodies was anything by the Pixies. Despite the mass recognition, plaudits, and breathless write-ups the band finally received during its recent reunion tour, the Pixies are still in some ways familiar only to a certain type of music fan.

For that certain type of music fan (obsessive, opinionated, and stalker-like loyal... er, dedicated), Ben Sisario’s take on the Pixies’ classic album Doolittle is a welcome treat. It’s also one of the better entries in the sometimes erratic 33 1/3 book series from Continuum. In a little more than 100 pages, Sisario covers all the key areas of both the Pixies and the album, including a nice overview of the band’s history, how the songs took shape, the quiet-loud-quiet-loud approach that runs throughout the album, the critical and commercial responses (or non-responses in the United States, as the band was largely ignored) to the album, and the album’s overarching themes.

Any analysis of a song’s lyrics runs the risk of being an exercise in futility; the reviewer in many cases can only guess at what the writer’s intentions were, has limited knowledge of the writer’s life and cultural influences, and makes assumptions based on his or her own interpretations of the lyrics. Pixies singer, lyricist, and top-ten bald musician of all time Frank Black was interviewed for this book, which allows Sisario to avoid these pitfalls. Sisario actually cruised around Portland with Black in the musician’s Cadillac, talking about the Pixies music and even stopping at a local record store to buy a copy of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man.

Besides making countless Pixie fans jealous, the end result of this approach is that Black provides many details about the album, especially the lyrics. For years Black was somewhat evasive and argumentative when questions about his lyrics were asked; he would often maintain that the words meant nothing and just sounded good strung together. Even if that does hold true in some cases on Doolittle (“Silver” comes to mind), Black provides tons of details into the album’s major topics and even into the context of certain lines.

Through Sisario’s musical joyride with Black, Doolittle’s themes of violence, death, and the horizontal tango, as well as the twisted and dark sense of humor that rests just below the surface, are examined and discussed. Black talks about how the album’s songs were influenced by Surrealism (“slicing up eyeballs” from “Debaser”), the Old Testament (“Dead” and “Gouge Away”), and crazy former roommates (“Crackity Jones”), among other things. Black is clearly sincere when discussing the album; he’s not blowing smoke or BS’ing about the songs in 1960s Bob Dylan fashion. Sisario’s book is a great glimpse into how Black assimilated these various influences and reflected them in the album’s lyrics.

The book does have some minor flaws. Sisario sometimes dives deep into what even the most obsessive Pixies fan might consider boring minutiae; things like the number of beats per song or the fact that a song is in 4/4 time are interesting but probably unnecessary in creating a better understanding of either the band or the album. And when Black offers only cursory input for some songs (“I Bleed," for example), Sisario tends to fill in the blanks with shaky conclusions.

Regardless of these shortcomings, Sisario’s book offers numerous insights and revelations into both the Pixies and Doolittle. Pixies’ fans won’t be disappointed.

Satire: Local High School Student Discovers New Athens, GA Band

Port Huron High sophomore Aimee Berryman reported to her friends today that she’s discovered a great new band from Athens, GA.

Berryman says she came across a band named “R.E.M.” when checking the iTunes store on Tuesday. “I rely entirely on iTunes to keep up to date with the hottest, most cutting-edge, and most subversive music around. If it wasn’t for the folks at iTunes who truly know what ‘underground’ and ‘anti-establishment’ mean, I’d be completely clueless about music history.”

According to Berryman, she purchased the band’s sophomore album Accelerate based on several disparate factors, including a quick listen to excerpts from the album, several breathless reviews posted on the popular music download site, and the fact that “the geeky-looking blonde-haired guy wearing the glasses looks like Ms. Villa, my Spanish teacher.”

Berryman readily admits that she has a long way to go in understanding this mysterious new band. “From what I can tell, they released one album a couple years ago that was poorly received. But what do you expect? How many bands’ first full length album is a classic that they then spend the next 25 years unfairly trying to live up to?”

The high school sophomore also confirms that Accelerate has been in heavy rotation on her iPod, alongside the likes of Beyonce, Fergie, and “some old-ass fossilized geezer named Dylan who my parents babble incessantly about. Whatever.”

Berryman also especially likes the brevity of the album; with 11 songs that clock in at about 35 minutes, it’s one of the shortest albums in her burgeoning iPod collection. Explains Berryman: “The length fits my attention span. Anything over that four-minute mark, and it’s time to check out. No thanks.”

The student believes that R.E.M. could be the precursor to a new musical style. “What the music world needs is a musical genre that specializes in songs less than three minutes in length that features aggressive guitars, nihilistic grandiose statements that decades later seem na├»ve and simplistic, and only three chords. Maybe there could even be a British version that in a little more than a year from its inception chokes to death on its own excesses and countless derivative copycat bands. Yeah, that’d be cool.”

Nevertheless, Berryman isn’t optimistic about the band’s chances of mainstream success. She feels that “a three-piece all-male band that doesn’t have either the backing of a major label or a carefully crafted and honed image as a true democratic band is at a disadvantage in today’s segmented and derivative radio airwaves. Plus, the lead singer is way too Moby bald to get on magazine covers.”

Berryman admits most of her friends are not on board with her new musical discovery. “Sometimes I’m able to turn my friends on to new music, like the time I discovered an unknown band named The Stooges. We all agreed that The Weirdness had to be just about the best thing they’d ever do.” But her friends remain unconvinced with the Athens band. Friend Quinlin Griffin thinks the band “will never have an unexpected hit song that features a mandolin, a somewhat controversial video that includes quasi-homo-erotic religious imagery, and obtuse lyrics based around Southern colloquialisms.”

Yet Berryman, who considers herself a budding music historian, remains undeterred and plans to dive deeper into the band’s small back catalog. In addition to downloading debut album Around The Sun, she plans to see the new band in concert. She’s quite convinced the band will remain largely unknown. “They’re having to tour with two other bands just to fill the space. You tell me: what chance does that type of band have of hitting the big time?”