Monday, December 15, 2008

Three Favorite Albums of 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rediscover: The Triffids - Born Sandy Devotional

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

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

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

Pavement: Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition

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

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

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

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

Monday, December 08, 2008

Guns N' Roses - Chines Democracy - Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 05, 2008

Concert Review: Calexico

Nov 9, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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