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.