Thursday, September 25, 2008

Music Review: Rick Danko Band - Live On Breeze Hill

Recorded live on May 23, 1998 and originally released just a couple months before Rick Danko’s death at the age of 56, the reissue of Live On Breeze Hill is a solid and occasionally surprising album that finds the Band bassist performing songs from his time with that fabled, er, band.

Supported by a backing group that includes fellow Bander Garth Hudson, Aaron “Louie” Hurwitz, Lenny Pickett, and Blues Brother alum Tom “Bones” Malone, Danko reinterprets Band standards, sometimes in a way that reveals striking differences from their better-known studio versions.

Though these live cuts don’t surpass those from Danko’s days with The Band, it’s certainly not a maudlin trip into pointless nostalgia or a case of a performer simply reliving his glory days at the audience’s expense. There’s much to like here.

After a studio version of “Sip The Wine,” which is inexplicably included as the first track on this live album and is inessential to anyone except the most ardent/obsessive Band or Danko fan, the concert opens with “Twilight,’ which sets the template for most of the songs that follow. With a nice instrumental intro, an accordion-driven melody, horns, and guitar flourishes that I’m told are required to be described as “liquidy,” it’s far more restrained than its studio counterpart. Though Danko’s vocals sometimes tend to get a little thin and strained, the song includes the trademark harmonies that are immediately reminiscent of his work with The Band. It’s an effective reworking of the song.

Similarly, “Ophelia” moves along with a pace and horn arrangement that differentiates it from its earlier incarnations. It’s far less frantic than the album version from Northern Lights-Southern Cross. “Caledonia Mission” is likewise reworked into a slow and almost mournful song of regret; with subtle horns and minimal piano, it’s far more stripped down than the cut included on Music From Big Pink.

Rarity and highlight “Blaze of Glory” (not the bombastic Jon Bon Jovi song from Young Guns II) successfully straddles the fence somewhere between country and bluegrass, and also contains some of the album’s best harmonies. Though some songs do not deviate much from those that The Band either put on record or performed live – “Crazy Mama” and “Shape I’m In” are essentially pulled straight from The Band playbook – the album is still a worthwhile listen. It’s not a retread of old Band standards.

For some listeners it might be tempting to find a certain foreboding in some of the songs in light of Danko’s death, which occurred less than a year after this show was recorded. Certainly “Shape I’m In” and especially closing track “It Makes No Difference” – with its drawn out harmonies and perfectly sad horns, it is performed almost like a dirge – are rife with potential veiled meanings.

Still other listeners might strongly feel that the songs performed on this album belong to a certain musical time and context, and especially to a specific group of musicians, and therefore shouldn’t be revisited. To some extent the album does sometimes inadvertently raise questions about the nature of a band’s legacy and the wistful nostalgia that inevitably follows, especially during the less engaging cuts included here.

Even though the live versions performed here don’t outshine either their studio or live counterparts from The Band – and to be honest, how could they? – it’s still essential listening for both fans of The Band or those interested in how classic songs are reworked decades after their original release. The overall impression created by this album is of an artist comfortable enough with his musical legacy to both pay homage to it without getting lost in its imposing shadow.

Satire: Music Fan Ponders Fate of Collection after His Demise

An alleged near-brush with death has left rabid indie fan Franklin Dyer pondering what will happen to his massive music collection once he springs off this mortal coil. Dyer reports that his near-demise was the ironic result of his good intentions to share his musical tastes with his two teenage neighbors, whom he now describes as two “hopeless pop music lackeys and who blast whimsical and vacuous tunes and other toxic waste at top volume.”

According to Dyer, the numerous attempts he’s made to share his impeccable musical preferences have resulted in emphatic rejections from the two neighbors. “It’s one slight after another. I kindly place Doolittle, a mix CD of rare Neutral Milk Hotel live performances, and the book Our Band Could Be Your Life in their mailbox, and they return it to my front porch in flames,” Dyer said dejectedly.

Yet Dyer never imagined that his goals of spreading his musical gospel to those truly uninterested in his opinions would nearly cost him his life. In a series of events that the two teenagers dispute – though judging from their frequent smirking and giggling, they clearly had some hand in the mayhem that ensued – Dyer alleges that the two teens switched out his October Uncut magazine’s CD with a collection of some of today’s most recognizable mainstream artists. “I eagerly popped in the CD to get an idea of which new songs I wanted to illegally download, er, purchase legally so that the composers are compensated for their work. But something was immediately amiss. The horror revved up with two Fergie songs, took a cruel detour into five different Pussycat Dolls songs, and concluded with Paris Hilton’s Stars Are Blind EP. Within seconds I began to have labored breathing, my vision got blurry, my throat closed up, my eyes started to burn, a purple rash developed on my arms, and I began to babble incoherently in Farsi before blacking out. I eventually woke up to find the Repeat function enabled and the song ‘Don’t Cha’ permanently seared into my brain.”

The horrific incident has left Dyer pondering what will happen to his enormous, and slightly disturbing, music collection once his life “starts to be measured in dirt years,” as he cynically puts it. “I’ve worked too hard through three marriages and several careers with varying degrees of success to just kick off without ensuring this collection finds a worthy home,” Dyer said with conviction. The collection, which he refuses to sell because of its priceless nature, includes both official and unofficial releases, and is a veritable history of music that the vast majority of Americans have never heard of.

For this reason, Dyer feels that its eternal preservation is essential, though he admits his attempts to find a suitable heir have thus far been unsuccessful. According to Dyer, “emails to my old trading partners have returned harsh and somewhat cavalier questions about when exactly I’m planning to die and what the shipping charges might be. My ex-wives declared they’d help me ‘take that junk out with the garbage next Tuesday, and personally pick clean the bones.’ My only daughter thinks Bruce Springsteen is the guy who runs the local Jewish deli, so obviously she’s not a good choice.”

Institutions have likewise shown little interest in the collection. Though he’s somewhat evasive when discussing the matter, he acknowledges that repeated inquiries to Federal preservation agencies have only resulted in his name being added to “various watch lists…but it’s only the government, so why worry?” Dyer likewise received a chilly reception from his local library, where the head librarian “only asked if I had any Perry Como records before making me pay up for an overdue copy of White Noise, which I checked out in 1985.”

Regardless, Dyer vows that his collection will find a loving home before he goes to that great backstage lounge in the sky. “Like innovation or creativity in current pop music, my time on this earth is limited. This collection traces the most obtuse and marginal strands of music history that most people aren’t even remotely aware of. Who wouldn’t be interested in this?”

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Music Review: Calexico - Carried to Dust

Reminiscent of both Feast of Wire and Garden Ruin, Calexico’s latest release is an atmospheric and evocative album that finds the band once again playing to its strengths. Entitled Carried to Dust, it’s a textured and layered album that reveals new melodies and instrumental tricks with each listen.

By now anyone familiar with the band’s jazz/country/rock/folk/Latin mixture won’t mistake a Calexico song for that of any other band. Though the image of Calexico as a collection of wandering troubadours invoking the music and culture of both the American Southwest and Mexico is by now largely inaccurate, several of the songs fit neatly into the Calexico playbook. Opening track “Victor Jara’s Hands” invokes the Chilean poet/musician/activist who was killed in 1973 and features the usual mariachi horns that somehow work on a Calexico album, instead of sending the listener running for cover like he would at certain Mexican restaurants. “InspiraciĆ³n” similarly goes gonzo with horns; sung in Spanish, the song still manages to create a definite tone and feel even if the listener’s knowledge of the language is limited to Taco Bell commercials and those very un-PC Speedy Gonzalez cartoons. Instrumentals like “El Gatillo (Trigger Revisited)” and “Falling from Sleeves” nicely recall similar instrumental pieces from the band’s previous albums.

Other songs are more reserved and wouldn’t sound out of place on Garden Ruin. “Bend to the Road” is restrained and tense, with occasional jazz flourishes and near-whispered vocals, as it implies some sort of impending disaster. “Slowness” features Pieta Brown and is essentially a country duet that floats along with one of the album’s most memorable and stripped-down melodies. Closer “Contention City” moves at its own languid pace and trails off into an instrumental ending with steel guitar, piano, and that most popular of modern instruments, the glockenspiel.

With the album’s emphasis on sonic textures created by the large variety of instruments used and musical genres explored – like many Calexico albums, mood and tone are often the most immediately noticeable aspects – the vocals are somewhat subdued. Yet this isn’t to say that they’re incidental; instead, recurring themes and images surface in many of the songs. Perhaps most striking are the various references to some type of disastrous event, often hand-in-hand with an isolated person and with a focus on nature’s destructive power. “Man Made Lake” finds its narrator roaming among the wreckage “like…a ghost searching for its grave,” walking through “streets with no stir of life…and all the houses on the streets wholly submerged.” Other songs exist inside a destroyed landscape; in “The News About William,” the central character is left in a barren landscape after a “storm that washed the roads out.”

Similarly, the character in “Fractured Air (Tornado Watch)” finds himself “clinging to the rooftop/losing track of days;” the listener can only assume this poor soul’s not hanging out on the roof for shits and grins. Nature’s indifference to humans runs through “Red Blooms,” a song ostensibly about Russian “snowdrops,” a term used to describe drunks who fall down and die in the snow and aren’t discovered until after the snow melts. It’s a disturbing image – “strangers plant themselves down in the cold hard ground/later when the harvest thaws, snowdrops will be in bloom” – with a particularly grim sense of humor about the cycles of life.

Though perhaps not a radical stylistic departure from the band’s previous albums, Carried to Dust is a richly layered album, with recurring themes and melodies that reveal themselves with each subsequent listening.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Satire: Area Music Fan Suffering from Hearing Loss

Longtime concertgoer Howard Deefman dejectedly admitted today that he’s distraught after learning from his physician that he’s starting to suffer from irreversible hearing loss. Deefman, a 65-year old Venice Beach street vendor and self-admitted “dinosaur rock aficionado,” estimates that he’s seen thousands of concerts over the last nearly 50 years, both in his hometown of Los Angeles and throughout the United States.Deefman readily admits the specific details of these show have become seriously scrambled in his addled brain. “I can vaguely remember sitting through marathon Led Zeppelin drum solos, Who concerts where the volume was so loud I couldn’t complete a covert drug transaction in the bathroom, and even a recent Springsteen concert that I thoroughly enjoyed from row 278.” Yet the street vendor is still in shock over his impending auditory demise. “The memory loss I can deal with; losing the memory of those Rick Wakeman ice concerts seems like a fair tradeoff. But I gotta be able to hear at these shows.”

Perhaps what’s most surprising is the alleged cause of Deefman’s hearing loss. Dr. Heinrich Vears, Deefman’s long-time doctor who he describes as a “good croaker who knows the score and how to write a solid prescription,” attributes his patient’s deterioration to a very unique cause. “Based on a series of extensive and cutting-edge tests, billed of course at a discounted rate since Mr. Deefman’s insurance lapsed sometime around the heyday of Prog Rock, I’ve concluded that his hearing loss is attributable to a lifetime of concerts in which he found himself sitting directly in front of a decibel-shattering person who would constantly shout at the band, drunkenly requesting songs that the band would never play anyway, and loudly harass those around him by calling everyone ‘bro’ or ‘dude,’ directly into Mr. Deefman’s ears.”Deefman readily agrees that the doctor’s theory rings true. Deep within the recesses of the remaining brain cells that are doing more than retaining bong resin, the lifetime music fan can still recall countless cases where his concert experience was ruined by a loud neighbor. “Dylan gospel tour 1980, some meathead spent the whole night screaming for ‘Tiny Montgomery’ and booing directly into my ear every time Dylan played a religious song. In 1997 I spent a whole month following Tom Petty around, and each night girls screamed hysterically every time he played ‘American Girl.’ At this year’s Tom Waits show in Phoenix, a fan in a bowler hat directly behind me conducted a screaming soliloquy about having Mr. Waits’ children before he was escorted out.”

Deefman gloomily concluded: “I used to think the worst thing about these concert screamers was that they’d startle me so much that I’d spill my Pabst all over some college preppie. But now I guess my hearing loss wasn’t actually caused by that particularly shrill Joan Baez show from 1963.”Though Deefman isn’t thrilled that he needs to begin wearing a hearing aid, he’s equally concerned that other music fans will suffer the same fate. “The younger generation’s ears are going to hell, without a doubt,” he asserted. “The stuff that passes for music nowadays is a far cry from the dulcet melodies of my 1960s prime. The noise kids listen to today proves to me that their ears are already crapping out. It’s certainly not music to my ears.”

Music Review - Okkervil River - The Stand Ins

Essentially a sequel to 2007’s The Stage Names, which was briefly considered for release as a two-disc album before being scaled down to a single album, Okkervil River's The Stand Ins uses central images of musicians and life on the stage to again address many of the themes that first surfaced on the band's 2007 album. Such a back story might also perhaps keep some of the more fickle indie music fans from initially dismissing Okkervil River’s latest effort as a collection of also-rans or throwaways that weren’t good enough for inclusion on The Stage Names.

Against a backdrop of songs that ranged from straight-on rockers to hushed ballads, singer and lyricist Will Sheff explored themes of death, celebrity, identity, and life’s little tragedies and disappointments throughout The Stage Names, often with a dark and black sense of humor. Though perhaps not quite as bleak as 2005’s Black Sheep Boy – that one could turn even the most emotionless hardass into a weeping, quivering emo ball of misery – it was still a decidedly emotional, and engaging, album. To be sure, The Stand Ins does in many ways sound like a coherent musical and thematic extension of its predecessor. It still predominantly deals in the dark stuff; though not exactly brooding – “On Tour With Zykos” and “Blue Tulip” being the obvious exceptions – it’s heavy on gloom and short on even the faintest glimmer of hope. “Singer Songwriter” addresses the nature of fame with a harsh dismissal of its protagonist’s legacy: “the kids once grown up are going to walk away.” “Pop Lie” likewise treads this territory with similar results; in this case the song drips with contempt as Sheff cynically implicates musicians and fans as frauds in the same game of (self) deception.

Tragic figures and their equally tragic stories are invoked in other songs. “Starry Stairs,” previously available on the bonus track edition of The Stage Names (at least it sounds the same to these ruined ears) , likely references doomed porno actress Shannon Wilsey (check the previous album’s “Savannah Smiles,” perhaps one of the most depressing songs ever recorded, and then mope and sob appropriately). Coupled with a nice horn arrangement, the song finds its character uneasily on display (“all these guys/all these curious sets of eyes/safe behind the TV screen”) and filled with regret ("what a hot half life I half lived"). Unlike The Stage Names, there isn’t much humor this time around. The possible dry humor of “Pop Lie,” which describes a supposed intellectual musician who did his “thesis on the gospel of Thomas,” is shown to be a mirage, supplanted by a mocking tone in which Sheff tells the musician that his “world is gonna change nothing.” “On Tour With Zykos” is drenched in piano and describes a relationship on the skids, with some harsh language that probably wouldn’t work well as a wedding vow: “take your shit/take your clothes and get out of my home.” All that’s left for the narrator is “another day tossed and done.” At times this cynicism threatens to overwhelm the listener; it’s not quite Berlin but it’s not too far off.

The album reveals some stylistic shifts for the band. Three brief orchestral instrumentals are scattered throughout, though these sometimes interrupt the album’s overall flow. The music breaks from previous Okkervil River albums in other ways. “Singer Songwriter” incorporates elements of country music, “Starry Stairs” relies heavily on a horn arrangement, “Pop Lie” is evocative of 1980s new wave, “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” has a carnival feel to it, and “Lost Coastlines” has enough tempo and instrumental changes to make the listener dizzy (in a good way). “Pull down the shades/let’s kill the morning,” Sheff sings in closing track “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979.” Though perhaps not as immediate as final track “John Allyn Smith Sails” from The Stage Names, it’s a resigned and fitting conclusion to Okkervil River’s latest album. Emotional without being weepy, literate without being pretentious, The Stand Ins is another excellent release from a highly creative and evolving band.