Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fucked Up: Couple Tracks: Singles 2002-2009

go read all the good stuff at

In a little under a decade, Fucked Up has recorded and released more music than many bands manage to in an entire career. Though the Canadian band isn't the only group churning out songs with such Pollard-like proficiency, it has largely maintained one key element sometimes lacking from other artists who spit out records at breakneck pace: quality control. It took the overwhelmingly positive critical reception to The Chemistry Of Common Life to introduce the band to a wider indie audience, but longtime fans already knew what that album confirmed: since 2002, Fucked Up has created some of indie's most challenging, confrontational and consistently solid records.

Couple Tracks: Singles 2002-2009 doesn't contain all of the band's essential singles from those years - given the sheer volume of its output, it really couldn't - but it's still a near-perfect compilation for both casual listeners who are only familiar with Fucked Up from Chemistry as well as those already well-versed in the band's extensive discography. Consisting of singles, demos, outtakes, cover songs and alternate versions, the release covers most of the band's best work of the last decade and, taken together with previous singles collection Epics In Minutes, offers a comprehensive overview of the band and is an early entry for one of the best reissues of 2010.

The Fucked Up of Couple Tracks is one whose hardcore leanings are obvious, especially on tracks like "No PasarĂ¡n," "Neat Parts" and "Ban Violins." The group takes a similar approach on nearly every song: Pink Eyes barks out his vocals like either an unhinged sociopath or the most dangerously sane person in the room, while the band, behind him, works over their instruments with a mixture of precision and violence. Still, the band offers enough variations in these songs to separate them from the shitpile of hardcore-influenced bands that so slavishly crib from Black Flag, Minor Threat and Fugazi, among others. These departures from typical hardcore are less pronounced than they are on Chemistry, but they are nevertheless evident: the atypically long running times, guitar instrumentals, underlying melodies and overdubs become more pronounced and tense against Pink Eyes' menacing snarls. Many of the songs included here are as strong as anything from Chemistry; moreover, there is an immediacy and directness to tracks like "Dangerous Fumes" and "Toronto FC" that is sometimes missing from some of Chemistry's more meandering and indulgent moments.

Although much of Fucked Up's sound and subject matter fit neatly within the hardcore template - and the group can be faulted for sometimes displaying that genre's dogmatic social/political/cultural tendencies - the band's style is unique enough to have saddled them with lofty, and most likely unrealistic, expectations. Whether by design or something as simple as great songs coupled with critical praise and a loyal fanbase, the group has taken a genre every bit as formulaic and doctrinaire as folk or bluegrass and made it relevant again. If the band's music has sometimes taken a backseat to its carefully honed image - the biographical misdirection and mythologizing, the bouts of painfully obvious and deliberate provocation, among other things - Couple Tracks: Singles 2002-2009 proves the songs are strong enough to stand on their own. Leave that extraneous stuff to less capable bands.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Revisit: Nirvana - In Utero (Steve Albini mix)

go check out

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

In February of 1993, Nirvana and Steve Albini finished recording the follow-up to the band's (insert hyperbolic adjectives here) 1991 release Nevermind. Already starting to distance themselves from that record - and in particular, its mostly sanitized and commercial-friendly sound that made it palatable to a broad audience - the trio consistently maintained that their next studio album would be far less accessible and polished than its predecessor. In the months leading up to the recording sessions Kurt Cobain's opinion of that album increasingly soured, at least in print, where the vocalist frequently voiced his displeasure at its smooth production and inoffensive sheen. Enlisting Albini - someone who seemed to never gave a damn about whether an album would be met with commercial acceptance - seemed to confirm the band's intention to craft something less FM-ready than Nevermind.

Though the exact order of events for what happened after the tapes were submitted to the suits at Geffen remains unclear, one thing is certain: whether due to label pressures, the band's dissatisfaction or a combination of the two, the Albini mix was rejected and hot shot producer Scott Litt was called in to give the songs an overhaul. "All Apologies" and "Heart-Shaped Box" were remixed, the bass and drums were given more separation throughout the album and Cobain's vocals were increased by a few decibels. Judging by most contemporary reviews these modifications were for the better; the revamped record that would be released as In Utero received almost universal critical praise as a radical departure from the style of Nevermind.

In retrospect, this shift wasn't nearly as dramatic as most critics claimed and it's debatable whether these changes really improved the album. Though Albini has as recently as 2007 stated that any version that passes as the Albini mix is generations removed from his recording, what is claimed as the Albini mix reveals significant differences from the revised In Utero. Although the face lift that was applied to the record appears slight and superficial at first glance, the effect it had on the record's overall composition is impossible to miss. The original mix didn't feature The Albini Sound at its most confrontational, but his version is still far more punishing, aggressive and industrial than the official release and emphasizes the influence that noise rock had on the band. This is most noticeable on harder-edged songs like "Serve the Servants," "Scentless Apprentice," "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" and "Milk It." Albini puts the vocals and instrumentation about even in the mix, making these songs far more abrasive than their officially-released counterparts, which still today sometimes sound too refined and safe.

Any chances of Cobain's lyrics not being the focus of attention were lost when the songs were reworked. Though Albini didn't bury the vocals as severely as he had on other albums, they sometimes threatened to be swallowed up by the songs' arrangements, creating a far more primal sound that often felt like Cobain was howling from the depths of his own private hell. In contrast, the Geffen-approved release increased the vocals' prominence just enough to kill off at least a fraction of the conflicted emotions he conveyed. Indeed, this seemingly innocuous decibel boost makes the singer's various mumbles, screams and wails on "Very Ape," "Pennyroyal Tea," "All Apologies" and the perfect-for-radio "Heart-Shaped Box" sound less desperate and urgent. Any potential walls Albini's mix might have allowed Cobain to construct as he railed against being typecast as some sort of disaffected slacker voice of a generation crumbled once the vocals were thrown front and center. Though these lyrics probably would have been dissected and overanalyzed regardless, at least Albini made the listener work to understand what had Cobain so pissed off and distraught.

Prior to his suicide Cobain remarked how he'd like to move in an entirely different musical direction, even suggesting an acoustic record along the lines of Automatic For the People wasn't out of the question. For observant fans it wasn't the first time they'd heard this, but it would be among the last. Though the official release remains Nirvana's most consistent effort, it's hard not to conclude that the band fell just short of a true masterpiece when the Albini mix was overhauled. It may take careful attention to fully appreciate the differences between these two pieces - and such an examination is clearly a sign of geeky fanboy behavior- but ultimately the Albini version comes across as more challenging, satisfying and worthy of the band's legacy. Although it's overly simplistic to assume the band conceded to these revisions to ensure mainstream attention and radio play - it's hard to imagine "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" and "Tourette's" expanding Nirvana's fan base - it is nevertheless undeniable that the Geffen version, while not exactly duplicating the slickness of Nevermind, didn't exactly disavow that record's accessibility either. As it stands today, In Utero sounds more like a partial deconstruction of the Nevermind sound that a complete break from it. That full deconstruction - Albini's mix - was essentially gutted in favor of something that, while representing the group's most adventurous studio release, smoothed over the band's sound just enough to make it less disagreeable to the mainstream audience that Nevermind initially reeled in.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Walkmen - Bows and Arrows

part of a cool feature at

Few albums continue to sound as evocative as Bows and Arrows. The follow up to the critic-revered though somewhat scattershot Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, it remains the Walkmen's most focused, ambitious and successful work. Its songs are so damn good that not even a cameo appearance on ultra-shitty teen melodrama "The O.C." could ruin "Little House of Savages" and "What's in It for Me."

With most tracks centered on the sights, sounds and desperate dramas of the typical metropolitan city, the album's arrangements complement the lyrics almost flawlessly. "The Rat," with its searing guitars, precise drumming and alternately menacing and vulnerable vocals, rightly garnered most of the attention in 2004, but in hindsight the record's other songs are equally strong. The listener can practically smell the booze and feel the rain-soaked streets in the bar-room laments of "138th Street" and "Hang On, Siobhan," while "No Christmas While I'm Talking" and "New Year's Eve" almost too convincingly depict the type of disillusionment and boredom many of us feel around the holidays.

Initially saddled with comparisons to U2, the Walkmen have since proven those claims largely absurd. It likely won't ever escape from the massive shadow that Funeral cast over 2004, but Bows and Arrows remains as relevant and varied as it did upon its initial release. If the "O.C." couldn't destroy those songs, nothing likely would.

Monday, January 11, 2010

13th Chime: Complete Discography

Get your inner Goth on and go to

It's not surprising that 13th Chime never found commercial success, remaining one of Britain's most obscure and under-appreciated bands and their hard-to-find catalog primarily of interest only to hardcore fans and collectors. With a difficult style that mixed post-punk with goth rock and made no concessions to the more accessible elements of either genre, the group self-released just three singles and recorded a handful of songs for I.R.S. Records before the suits at that label decided they weren't particularly interested in the Chime's macabre subject matter and claustrophobic, experimental arrangements. Lead singer Mick Hand would depart soon thereafter, leaving remaining members Gary O'Connor, Terry Taylor and Ricky Cook to recruit a new vocalist and attempt a few rehearsals before eventually calling it quits in 1985. With no sympathetic record label to keep the group's work readily available, the Chime's standing as a band with a cult following was assured.

Complete Discography, then, will likely be most listeners' first introduction to the band. With the exception of live performances, the release presents the group's entire known recorded output and shows the band deserves far more than just passing mention in the post-punk story. Though much of the band's theatricality (the group took its name from a line in George Orwell's 1984, dressed predominately in black and presented themselves as androgynous sub-creatures, while their live shows featured pagan images, animal bones and speakers that were stored in custom-made coffins) now seems both dated and perversely quaint, the music itself remains unnerving and entirely original. The Chime's earliest songs are conversely the group's most discordant and striking efforts. Hand's vocals on "Cuts of Love," "Coffin Maker," "Cursed" and "Dug Up" are delivered as demented, echoed chants - sometimes reminiscent of PiL-era John Lydon - Taylor's bass is oppressively up front in the mix, while O'Connor's guitar and Cook's drums alternate between precision and improvisation. The songs recorded for I.R.S. are more rock-oriented and professional but no less worthwhile. Hand's vocals are fairly straightforward and mostly audible on "Radio Man," "Fire," "Two as a Couple" and "Help Me Street," with the group's instrumentals more developed and mature, the underlying melodies more pronounced.

Though the Chime's catalog contains heavy amounts of stereotypically goth themes - doom, gloom and enough caskets and corpses to fill a cemetery - and the group itself invented a persona to match, their best songs are notable for their introspective undertones and social concerns. The tough instrumentation would never suggest it, but there is a sense of a more personal type of loss in the group's singles beyond all the deathrock images and conceits they contain; indeed, the death of friend Steven Woodgate, with whom Hand, O'Connor and Cook played in the short-lived band Anticx, possibly influenced some of these songs. At their best, the band's lyrics railed against many of the popular topics of the day with both caustic humor and a sharp critical tongue: "A woman's heart is such a small price to pay/ For the exploitations of the people's culture," Hand declares in the barroom drama "Sally Ditch." If this release confirms anything, it's that the Chime should not be typecast as a prototypical goth band.

Complete Discography might not pull 13th Chime out from obscurity, but it does finally make the band's recordings readily available to the public and is a well-produced document of the band's blink-and-you'll-miss-it career. The sound and subject matter won't appeal to everyone, and there likely will be plenty of detractors ready to dismiss the band as just another black-clad, overly theatrical collective. And while goth rock has become its own punchline, the Chime's music still sounds desperate, urgent and unique enough to clearly show that the band should be considered in the broader context of the British post-punk era.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream

Steven Watts has managed to do the near-impossible: turn Hugh Hefner's life into a plodding, monotonous and excruciatingly goddamn boring exercise in academic overkill and professorial tedium. His Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream is the first serious book-length attempt to view Hefner as an historical figure, particularly against the backdrop of the socially conservative 1950s in which Playboy was first launched. As a study that largely ignores the more salacious and sordid details of the publisher's life in favor of a considered examination of how Playboy has both impacted and reacted to shifting cultural and sexual attitudes, the book occasionally succeeds. Yet it's ultimately a failure; excessively long and mind-numbingly repetitive, the book is a dry, clinical and humorless biography that simply goes in circles.

That Watts has done his research is never in question. Drawing from an ungodly amount of material from the 1950s to the present, Watts' portrait of Hefner is likely as complete a depiction of the publisher as we'll get. Granted substantial interview time with Hefner in which he clearly discussed far more than which women Hefner has nailed over the years - the author is likely more dedicated than others would be in his place - Watts does a solid job of offering a nuanced view of Hefner as both a person and businessman. Though Watts' depiction is largely sympathetic, it's not fawning and Hefner's flaws do not go unmentioned. Watts never resorts to tabloid journalism; those interested in a tell-all sex fest should look elsewhere. Hefner's single-minded focus - some would say obsession - on all major aspects of the magazine is discussed in depth, as are the various triumphs and tragedies that punctuate the Playboy story. Though Hefner obviously the book's focus, it also serves as a nice primer for anyone interested in the magazine's history (and not just the pictures).

All of which makes Mr. Playboy all the more frustrating. Despite Watts' intensive research and direct access to Hefner, the book is agonizingly redundant and tiresome to read. One of Watts' major assertions is that Playboy played an integral part in shaping the public's views on leisure, consumerism, wealth, and, of course, sex, especially in the post-World War II Eisenhower years. Watts argues that Hefner was adamant that Playboy would never be branded as a skin magazine or pervert's handbook, showing how from its earliest days the magazine included social commentary, fashion advice, fiction from leading writers of the day and critiques of music and film. Less convincingly, Watts depicts Hefner as a, to use his words, "philosopher king" whose frequently awkward and half-baked forays into philosophical discourse attempted to codify the Playboy philosophy.

Though Watts shows how Hefner played a pivotal role in endorsing a lifestyle of pleasure and, in a term the author uses far too often, "material abundance," this conclusion is reiterated constantly and turns the biography into a bloated tome that fails to maintain the reader's attention. Watts exerts a lot of effort and numerous pages - Going Green was apparently never an option - doing nothing more than restating this thesis. The book quickly suffocates under the weight of this oft-repeated conclusion, with a grotesque number of incredibly similar quotes utilized to the point of the reader's annoyance. Watts is about as subtle as a hammer upside the head; either he doesn't trust the reader to get the point unless it's repeated ad nauseam or he needed to add bulk to the biography. Either way too often the book reads like minor variations on the same theme, an interminable and seemingly endless regurgitation of a conclusion that is made painfully obvious. Watts also tends to view too many of Hefner's actions and decisions in light of the editor's broader cultural and social ambitions, an approach that sometimes isn't entirely believable; sometimes a photograph of a naked woman is just a photograph of a naked woman and not a harbinger of evolving cultural attitudes or a celebration of a consumerist lifestyle.

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream is simply too deliberate and mechanical, with no textures, quirks or humor to offset its laborious approach to Hefner's life and legacy. Regardless of one's personal opinion of the Playboy founder, it's undeniable that Hefner had a visible role in this country's attitudes toward a variety of social and cultural issues. It's a pity that his life story too often takes a back seat to Watts' insistence to make his point.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Tribute: Vic Chesnutt (1964-2009)

visit this week.

It's the news that we have been dreading and perhaps expecting for years: Vic Chesnutt is dead, most likely by suicide. Chesnutt always seemed older than his years and living on borrowed time: the cracked voice; those loosely-fitting clothes that suggested he was nothing but bones underneath them; the wheelchair and the limitations they imposed on him. Suicide was never a stranger in the singer's life or his songs. In various interviews he acknowledged several previous suicide attempts with a disarming degree of candor; "I flirted with you all my life/ Even kissed you once or twice" is how he addressed the subject on At The Cut. "Florida," written as an elegy for a friend who killed himself, now sounds even more chilling:

A man must take his life in his own hands
Hit those nails on the head
And I respect a man who goes to where he wants to be
Even if he wants to be dead

Most of the obituaries that have been written thus far have invariably typecast Chesnutt as a humorless and death-obsessed Southern folkie. Certainly Chesnutt spent much of his musical, and one imagines, private life confronting the types of questions about mortality many of us would prefer to keep at a safe distance. But the musician's work went far beyond that simplistic characterization; his songs could be cruel, comforting, comical and caustic all at once. At their best they told us something about the beauty and tragedy of life, about companionship and isolation, about hope and hopelessness.

His lyrics could paint pictures more vividly and believably than any painter's canvass; his songs were undeniably poetic. In Chesnutt's songs life was presented in startling detail; a bizarre, fragile and occasionally humorous world came alive in a Vic Chesnutt song. He saw the minute details about the world that most of us cannot or have been conditioned to ignore:

The filthy steps, the cold concrete
The phony earth below my feet
The ancient odor of the street
Yes the world, world, world it is a sponge
"Sponge" (from West of Rome)

Life is often portrayed as painfully transient at best in a Vic Chesnutt song. His albums are littered with characters whose little dramas we can recognize as our own and take consolation in. Chesnutt's musical worldview could be remarkably bleak; even the blissful innocence of childhood couldn't last forever. In his songs he reminded us that eventually we'll become more cynical, distant and indifferent to the world around us as we age:

And a little bitty baby draws a nice clean breath
From over his beaming momma's shoulder
He's staring at the worldly wonders that stretch just as far as he can see
But he'll stop staring when he's older
"New Town" (from About To Choke)

Time is rarely anyone's friend in a Vic Chesnutt song: it inexorably rolls on with or without us. That he could express such sentiments without resorting to melodrama is a testament to his unique lyrical and vocal abilities. When he wasn't twisting the knife into one of his hapless victims, Chesnutt could pose such questions about mortality, aging and the past with both sympathy and tenderness. He knew more about loss and loneliness than any one person should have had to:

Betty Lonely
She will always think in Spanish
Though I know her Spanish black hair will start to fade
"Betty Lonely" (from Is the Actor Happy?)

Conversely some of his songs reflect a fidelity and sense of promise that at least temporarily brightens the suffering lives that played out in his albums. A listener has to look hard and past all the jilted lovers left at the altar, coldest cadavers in the state and dead pigeons in the weeds to find such optimism, but it is there for anyone who wants to find it. If Chesnutt's music usually leans heavily towards total despair, glimpses of light still peak through. He could be unapologetically sentimental:

Cuddling up
Declarations of love
Squeeze and a hug
A kiss and a rub
Faces opposed
Eyelids closed
Nuzzling nose
Like Eskimos
"In My Way, Yes" (from Silver Lake)

In concert it was difficult to watch him perform; his stage presence was simple, genuine and unbearably heartbreaking. He'd sit in the wheelchair and sing in that fractured voice that could wrench meanings out of the even the simplest line or melody, his face twisting and contorting to the words, the bony fingers that actually worked impossible to ignore as they picked at a guitar. When it was time for an encore he'd simply roll the wheelchair back a few feet, wait and then roll it forward towards the microphone. Yet underneath that frail exterior was a defiance and confidence that suggested he knew how great these songs were, and that we'd better goddamn listen. He could quiet a belligerent crowd as easily with his acidic tongue as he could with his lyrics:

Chesnutt: Here's a song about my world actually.
Fan: It's our world, bro!
Chesnutt: It's my yard, motherfucker.
Introducing "Chinaberry Tree," 11/2/09 Athens, GA

It will be impossible to listen to his albums in the same way again. Many of Chesnutt's lyrics will now take on even darker implications in light of his death, and his memory will haunt these songs forever. For those closest to him, his death is a loss that words will never adequately describe. For those who only knew him via his songs, that loss is likewise deeply felt. His music touched our lives and put into words the indignities we endure, and he did it without ever coming across as weepy or self-pitying. He stared down the harsh realities of both his life and our lives with an endearing amount of honesty. He never glossed over anything in his songs - atheism, death, aging, mortality, the past - and he did it with a mixture of humor of the blackest sort and a remarkably colloquial yet poetic ear for language.

Today "Florida" sounds eerily prophetic:

Yes a man must make unpopular decisions, surely from time to time
And a man can only stand what a man can stand
It's a wobbly, volatile line

Vic Chesnutt dangled on that line for longer than most in his situation probably could have. His legacy will be defined by the songs that revealed the scars he'd received throughout life and how he coped with such pain. He wrote some of the most beautiful and disturbing songs any musician has created. For all of us, that will just have to be enough.

by Eric Dennis