Saturday, July 26, 2008

Music Review: David Bowie - Live In Santa Monica '72

Part of the problem with legendary shows that eventually find their way to official release is the occasional letdown factor. Originally acquired via unofficial channels, such shows are spoken about in mystical terms by an artist’s hardcore and most demented fans until the show itself becomes far more than just another live performance in the artist’s career. It becomes a defining moment in music history, and goddammit, it demands worship at its altar.

In some cases the actual official release lives up to the hype. Bob Dylan’s fabled 1966 “Judas” concert, previously immortalized both on vinyl as well as the classic Guitars Kissing and the Contemporary fix bootleg, among others, eventually saw official, if grossly belated, release from Sony. Despite some alleged sonic inferiorities to previous bootleg versions, this long-awaited official version confirmed that the actual performance equaled the legend that surrounded it.

Similarly, David Bowie’s 1972 show in Santa Monica, California is considered by many Bowie fans and sick musos to be among the defining concerts of his career, as well as one of those landmark performances that dot the landscape of music history (the fact that this marked Bowie’s first live radio broadcast in the States probably didn’t hurt the myth factor).

Previously available in various releases of both dubious legality and sound quality, the show is certainly on target and solid. Bowie performs the songs with conviction and focus on his first American tour. Although he was well established in merry England, he was not yet a household name in the States. There’s also very little hint of the personal and musical over-indulgences that would come later, and depending on your preferences, would mark the beginning of a run of innovative 1970s albums, or indicate the first signs of a performer whose musical outputs never quite lived up to his ambitions.

Backing band the Spiders from Mars are as integral to the album as Bowie himself; they bring enough force to the songs to make them stand out and give them a frenetic life and energy, in most cases. The trio of “The Supermen,” “Five Years,” and “Life On Mars” is intense and frantic, with both Bowie and the band bringing a palpable anger and doom to the apocalyptic foreboding of these songs. “Queen Bitch” performed live here surpasses its album counterpart, and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” is an emotional, if perhaps heavy-handed, fitting close to the concert.

However, it’s still open to debate as to whether the show deserves its place at the table of legendary musical performances. Certainly it’s mostly an outstanding performance and the material is nearly irreproachable. Bowie was able to pick and choose from landmark albums The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.

Nevertheless, there are some agonizingly dull moments that sound pretty dated hearing them over 35 years later. “Width of a Circle” clocks in at around ten minutes and loses its steam after only a few of those; it’s a struggle to get through it.

Likewise, Bowie’s take on the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man” is a curiosity piece at best. Performed with minor lyrical changes and at a pace somewhere between the Velvet’s classic version on The Velvet Underground and Nico and the pseudo-country live arrangement the band favored after John Cale’s forced departure, Bowie’s interpretation sounds both odd and a little boring. It’s more of a careful, polite homage than a successful attempt to reinvent or interpret the song in a unique way.

Because of these flaws, it’s tough to include this concert among the big boys. Maybe it’s a generational thing and the album sounds better to those who experienced Bowie the first time around, instead of through these 1990s indie-bred ears. Or maybe hearing it on various bootlegs over the years lessened the mystery once the album finally made is official release, leading to a letdown. And while a live album doesn’t necessarily need a Judas moment or Johnny Rotten-esque confrontational approach (“You’ll get one encore and one encore only!”), it still needs something to both separate it from the glut of live albums and live up to the myth that surrounds it.

Even though this release is an excellent snapshot of 1972 Bowie and the Spiders from Mars and is well worth repeated listens, it doesn’t always live up to its myth. Besides, some of us are still holding out hope for a definitive Tin Machine live album to see official release.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Music Review: Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Lie Down In the Light

Lie Down In the Light is in many ways an atypical Will Oldham record. For the most part, the themes most often associated with his albums (death, fractured relationships and lives on the skids, a touch of dread, and a little more death) are now tempered with a tranquility and contentment rarely seen on any of Oldham’s previous releases. He’s gone a little domestic. Sure it’s not as obvious as say, New Morning or Planet Waves, but long time listeners will certainly notice this shift.

Several of the songs on Light evoke a genuine peace and optimism that might come as a shock for those who like their Oldham gothic and doomed a la I See A Darkness. Opening track “Easy Does It” starts with a breezy country rhythm and then works in piano, fiddle, and backwoods geetar as Oldham (again releasing an album under his Bonnie "Prince" Billy handle) sings joyfully about “good earthly music.” It’s about family and friends, and simple pleasures; it sets the tone for the next several songs as well.

Second track “You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes)” continues this heavily country sound as it evokes a happy family scene that could very easily be from a past era (you know, the era where Uncle Jethro had no real teeth left and played his banjo on the front porch of his Appalachian shack). “I like the places where the night does not mean an end/where smiles break free and surprise is your friend/and dancing goes on in the kitchen until dawn” Oldham sings with a sincerity and lack of lyrical ambiguity that dotted previous albums. Similarly, “(Keep Eye On) Other’s Gain” builds from a simple guitar accompaniment and stresses the importance of family (just like your mother also said): “keep your loved ones near/and let them know just where you’ll be/because others need you right nearby/just as you need me.”

Nevertheless, several of the songs deal in the woe, despair, and dark humor that bring either a smile to or induce morose depression in Oldham’s fans. “You Want That Picture,” sung as a duet with Ashley Webber (who lends excellent backing vocals throughout much of the album), depicts a faltering mess of a relationship, with both characters lobbing accusations and finding a decidedly morbid silver lining: “I went outside/and I stood very still in the night/and I looked at the sky/and knew someday I’d die/and then everything would be alright.”

“Missing One” immediately follows and finds the relationship now over. Again backed by sparse guitar, Oldham’s newly single man admits that “missing you has only just begun.” The conflicting emotions and muted resolutions that characterize Oldham’s best songs again creep in here, with the male character saying “I wouldn’t trade my life for someone’s millions/and I know you left for a reason.” What that reason is Oldham isn’t saying.

The trio of woe concludes with “What’s Missing Is.” With some subdued instrumental flourishes that compliment the guitar, and featuring Webber singing backing vocals that meld very well with Oldham’s voice, it’s perhaps the darkest song on the album. The mournful instrumental break adds to the overall tone of despair in the song.

Produced by Lambchop’s Mark Nevers, Light’s sound relies heavily on country music elements. Although these elements have been implied in Oldham’s previous works, it’s brought to the forefront this time around. The result is an album whose production is warm and balanced; it also sounds great on both headphones and stereo. Even though Lie Down In the Light is not entirely a hopeful album, it doesn’t cozy up to abject bleakness like an old friend the same way Oldham’s previous albums have.

Satire: Engaged Couple's Musical Differences Threaten to Derail Wedding

Engaged couple Kristen Tiffington and Curtiss Ian announced today that their June 2013 wedding is in jeopardy due to ongoing conflicts regarding the music that will be used to commemorate their special day.

Ian, a 30 year-old maintenance supervisor and self-proclaimed “indie snob, but in a good way” says the high point of his life occurred when a drunken concert-goer recently mistook him for Hold Steady singer Craig Finn. Ian is rather blunt in his assessment of the ongoing conflict. “Chick’s taste in music sucks. Girly doesn’t know the difference between Tom Waits and Tom Hanks. She thinks Mission of Burma was a 1950s Russian space expedition and that Radiohead stole their ideas from Coldplay, for chrissakes.”

Tiffington, a 27 year-old investments analyst who describes herself as a “pop music princess” and is clearly marrying down, is still optimistic the matter can be resolved by the rapidly approaching wedding date, which is a scant five years away. “Right now Curtiss and I are not aligned in terms of the music that will be utilized, vis a vis our musical preferences. However, I’m confident we can reach a mutual agreement without me having to withhold certain favors from him,” Tiffington stated with a wry grin.

As the wedding planning got underway, it was agreed that each would create a list of the top 25 songs they wanted played at the reception.

“I picked upbeat, fun, danceable music, and I expected Curtiss to do the same,” Tiffington explained, her eyes misting with tears of disappointment. “I came up with enough 1990s sugar pop tunes to keep everyone dancing like the Funky Bunch. And of course the ‘Macarena.’ No reception is complete without that one.”

Yet the end results revealed that the couple’s diametrically opposite musical tastes were far greater than the blushing bride originally thought. “Was I bothered by his choices?” Tiffington asked rhetorically. “No. I was horrified and emotionally disturbed. The mixture of depressing, atonal, and patently unlistenable squawking crap he came up with I can’t even give a name. It’s a wedding, not some Emo weep fest.”

Ian is quick to defend his choices, however. “A wedding is more than just a celebration of life, eternal love, new beginnings, and all that crap,” he explained. “It’s also the perfect opportunity to foist my musical preferences on unsuspecting relatives.”

To this end, Ian compiled an eclectic collection of music that only a marginal number of wedding guests are likely to enjoy. “I want my wedding to have a certain vibe to it; sure it’s flowers and roses and obnoxiously drunken distant uncles. But it’s about more than that. If I convert just one person to a love of My Bloody Valentine or Jawbox while ruining the experience for everyone else, it will be totally worth it.”

Yet his future wife isn’t budging. “I’ve vetoed every one of his choices. I could have brained him when he suggested our first dance be to “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” This is a wedding; the music’s meant to be fun and frivolous in a light, airy, Electric Slide kinda way. His bizarre musical obsessions are out.”

Ian’s musical tastes might not be the only thing that’s out. The couple does agree on one thing: if they don’t get this resolved soon, the wedding might very well have to be postponed again. “Five years is barely enough time to plan a vacation, let alone a wedding,” Tiffington lamented, with Ian eagerly nodding his head and smiling widely in agreement.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Music Review: The Hold Steady - Stay Positive

The Hold Steady’s previous album, Boys and Girls in America, was an exhilarating, emotional, and occasionally sobering mix of songs about drinking, drugs, and other wholesome activities. Its characters seemed to enjoy getting their kicks and fixes in the moment, but remained acutely aware that the morning after wouldn’t be so sweet. Its most obvious influences were impeccable – a holy triumvirate of the Replacements, Husker Du, and E-Street Band-era Bruce Springsteen came to mind for various reviewers – yet the album somehow managed to incorporate those influences without sounding like a cheap knockoff.

The band’s latest album, Stay Positive, wears these influences with pride once again, perhaps a little too much so for some fans and critics. Still, it’s not accurate to dismiss the band’s latest effort as unoriginal or blandly derivative. Despite what one witty critic recently wrote, lead singer Craig Finn isn’t the offspring of Springsteen and Bob Mould. The band brings an organic, traditional rock sound, free of needless background music and manufactured noise, and an intensity to both their albums and live performances that do separate them from the glut of indie bands.

Stay Positive is a good album, even if it doesn’t quite match up to either Boys and Girls or their earlier album Separation Sunday. The songs vary from aggressive, pseudo-macho anthems (macho for indie standards, at least) like “Constructive Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis,” to ballads like “Lord, I’m Discouraged.”

Although the vocals are a bit more restrained and the instrumentation a tad more polished, Finn still talk-sings in his distinctive voice and the band still makes a decent amount of racket. In an album setting, the band clearly knows how they want their music to sound; it’s textured and layered without being oversaturated or suffering from a cold production.

The songs explore many of the same themes as Boys and Girls and Separation Sunday. Like those two albums, Finn’s characters still invariably always seem to be getting older at breakneck speed, aided by drugs, booze, horizontal tangos, or the various other temptations of the late-night scene. These are songs where the characters could either be heading for redemption or disaster, or maybe both. There’s a fair amount of boredom and restlessness here, with little hint of resolution or positive endings.

Death guest stars on many of the songs. The clear Springsteen conceit aside, Finn’s cynical summation of “work at the mill and then you die” in “Constructive Summer” sets the tone for the much of the album. “Lord, I’m Discouraged” is damn bleak, with the narrator admitting “I mostly just pray she don’t die.” “Both Crosses,” so heavy on the religious imagery you might think you’re back in PSR, ranks among the darkest songs Finn has written. On top of a sparse musical arrangement, Finn sings “I’ve been mostly dying, and I’ve been mostly coughing, and I’ve been mostly crying.”

There are a few subtle shifts though. Whereas the band’s two previous albums explored drug and alcohol-fueled lives and the inevitable after-effects, some of the songs on Stay Positive find people simply struggling to come to terms with getting older, no chemical assistance required.

The title song (if you’re in a particularly bad mood, this song might set you off like Michael Douglass in Falling Down) finds the narrator increasingly tiring of wild nights. In “Joke About Jamaica,” a woman finds herself noticing that “the boys are getting younger and the bands are getting louder.” Longtime Hold Steady geeks will also notice that recurring characters Holly, Charlemagne, and Gideon don’t make any explicit appearances on the album. If any of the songs are about them, Finn’s not giving it away.

Stay Positive isn’t exactly The Hold Steady treading water, but it’s certainly not a major step forward musically either. In many ways it sounds like we’ve heard this before, or at least parts of it. Still, there are some noticeable shifts, even if it won’t stop the detractors from focusing on the band’s sometimes too-obvious influences.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Music Review: The National - The Virginia EP

A collection of demos, b-sides, and live performances, The Virginia EP is a solid release from indie darlings/morose dudes The National. Although it doesn’t match up with the band’s most recent proper release, the much feted and breathlessly praised Boxer – and with the same cover style and font as that album, the EP is clearly meant to recall it – the EP is still a worthwhile release. With 12 songs and a running time of around 45 minutes, fans of the band certainly cannot complain about not getting their money’s worth. Even better, most of the songs are keepers and worth repeated listens.

The album is divided evenly between demos, studio cuts, and live tunes. Of the four demos, “Tall Saint” and “Forever After Days” are nearly album-ready and would have fit nicely on Boxer. “Rest of Years” is pretty rough even in demo form and suffers from oddly distant vocals. Final demo “Slow Show” is markedly different from the Boxer version. With an almost robotic musical and vocal arrangement, and significantly different lyrics that also appear on b-side “Blank Slate,” the song bears little resemblance to the finished album version. The demo seems rushed and cold; it gives little hint of the remarkable take eventually included on Boxer. Those indie dweebs interested in how a song’s lyrics and instrumentation evolve can geek out and find many other differences between the demo and finished versions.

Three of the four studio cuts are National originals, with the fourth being a cover version of Caroline Martin’s “Without Permission.” Originals “Santa Clara” and “Blank Slate” were previously issued as b-sides in the UK, and opening track “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia” is a previously unreleased version (a different version appeared on the “Lit Up” single). These three originals are all representative of both The National’s sound and the themes that recur throughout Matt Berninger’s lyrics.

The EP ends with four excellent live songs that give the listener a glimpse into what The National sound like in a live setting. Although the songs suffer from the visual element being taken away, and the version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” sometimes seems a little forced and overwrought, the three other live songs will whet fans’ appetites for an official live album.

A radio session performance of “Lucky You” presents the song in a more stripped down manner, with Berninger’s vocals sounding far more weary and defeated than what appears on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. “Fake Empire” and “About Today” are heavier on the horns and overall noise than their album counterparts. The reworked arrangement is used to great effect on “About Today,” which on Cherry Tree is goddamn depressing and certain to put a damper on anyone’s mood. The song’s overall theme of doubt and a relationship on the skids remains in the live cut, but added to it is a hint of the range of emotions the band is able to convey in concert.

The EP also includes Vincent Moon’s A Skin, A Night film that ostensibly covers the making of the album, interspersed with fragments of live performances. Though not exactly a booby prize, it doesn’t add much to the Boxer story, and its disorienting concert footage is an epileptic’s worst nightmare. One person’s art house documentary is another person’s nightmare of torture.

Any EP such as this is bound to have inherent flaws: the term b-side implies a certain inferiority to the songs that actually made the proper album, demos are sometimes difficult for even the most obsessed (er, dedicated) fan to listen to more than a few times, and a smattering of live songs can only hint at, and never fully convey, what it’s like to see a band on stage. Not quite a release solely for The National’s most loyal fans but also not the best starting point for those unfamiliar with the band, the Virginia EP is nevertheless a welcome addition to The National’s catalog. Fans most likely won’t walk away disappointed, but those not yet converted probably won’t be drinking the Kool-Aid if this is their first introduction to the band.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Devo Sues McDonald's; New Wave Nigel Under Fire

In perhaps the most bizarre music story of 2008 to date, New Wave band Devo is suing greasy French fries, quasi-chicken nuggets, and mysterious meat substance McRib purveyor McDonald’s over alleged unauthorized use of the band’s likeness in a Happy Meal toy. The band claims that “New Wave Nigel,” which besides sporting an American Idol logo is also clad in a costume strangely similar to the one the band immortalized in the “Whip It” video, is little more than a mass-produced ripoff of the Devo image.

First, the easy part: that damn toy undeniably looks conspicuously similar to Devo. Anyone who’s even remotely aware of either the band or its most famous video (kids: back in the old days, MTV played videos and not just America’s Next Top Model on an endless loop) would agree. Nigel’s truly styling in both a jumpsuit and flowerpot hat; it’s likely not a coincidence that his wardrobe looks so similar to Devo’s. Either McDonald’s Marketing and Legal departments are musical Neanderthals devoid of even the most basic knowledge of music history, or they simply chose to take their chances with the toy anyway. Hell, Nike tried a similar approach with Minor Threat.

And while it’s likely that the Happy Meal chowhounds of today won’t associate Devo with the toy, it’s quite possible that said chowhounds’ parents (or grandparents, har har) will.

Devo is currently riding the artistic integrity highway in explaining its legal action. Bassist Gerald Casale, credited with creating the band’s unique look, is quoted as saying that McDonald’s “didn’t ask us anything. Plus, we don’t like McDonalds’, and we don’t like American Idol, so we’re doubly offended.”Nevertheless, it’s somewhat difficult to accept this assertion at face value. Despite its carefully crafted image as a band that mocked and criticized commercialism, Devo hasn’t shied away from using its image or music in commercials. The band appeared in a 1984 ad for Honda scooters, and later recorded a new version of “Whip It” for Swiffer television commercials (though Casale has since stated the band regrets that decision). Clearly, Devo won’t ever be confused with Tom Waits regarding their views on licensing their songs (or themselves) for commercial use.

With this history in mind, Casale’s comment that McDonald’s “didn’t ask us anything” is curious. Those cynics among us could interpret that to mean that Devo might have approved the idea, had they been asked and, it can be inferred, been given a cut of that sweet Big Mac baksheesh.

So why continue with the lawsuit? Sure McDonald’s is guilty of either unimaginable, ignorant stupidity at best or shameless, blatant thievery at worst. Devo’s always operated with a twisted and wry sense of humor; they should get creative and devise a partnership with McDonald’s. Besides, there are many similarities between Devo and McDonald’s that are too striking to ignore:

Devo has crafted an other-worldly image throughout their career. Similarly, anyone biting into a McGriddle will certainly agree that those ingredients are not of this world.
The musical output of Devo and the less-than-gourmet output of McDonald’s don’t age particularly well. A bad Devo song is basically the musical version of a day-old Quarter Pounder: hopelessly dated beyond repair, possibly toxic, and likely to send you scurrying to the bathroom.

Devo can parlay this Happy Meal brouhaha to their advantage by introducing themselves to a new generation of music and fast food consumers. A whole line of new toys could document every phase of the band’s career. McDonald’s cups could be shaped into the band’s famous flowerpot hats. And, oh yeah, I’ll take my McDevo with cheese.