cool hand bak

Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Listen Over My Shoulder

I don't listen to the radio. I haven't for years. I know there are some independent or college stations that are supposed to be worth listening to, but I'd just rather not deal with it. I'm selfish in that regard: I want absolute control over what passes through my ears, musicwise at least. Sometimes, though, despite my best efforts, I find myself in situations where someone else is in control of the music. And not someone who knows me and wants to introduce me to something they think I might take a liking to, someone who's tuning the dial carelessly. It sucks, but it's a fact of life. I've learned to handle it with dignity and grace.

And it's a good thing too, because if I've learned anything in my time as a music junkie, it's that you never know where your next fix is going to come from. I've been introduced to great songs in the supermarket and in elevators. The first time I heard Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' "Tracks Of My Tears" I was walking around a shopping mall. There's a fragment of a song I heard once at a poetry reading. The singer was rebelling against guitars being outlawed at the event. That fragment means more to me than many things I've sought out; not a lot of time passes between the occasions when I feel the urge to sing it.

Today at work, someone else had the good computer, with the speakers. They chose the radio. KEXP. I don't have anything against this station, except that they don't play what I want to hear when I want to hear it. Well, and the fact that most radio personalities, if I can call them that, are annoying by nature. But today, KEXP did introduce me to something I liked, a lot. See, you just never know.

What KEXP played was an in-studio session by Seattle singer-songwriter Christy McWilson from August, 2002. The song I heard, sandwiched between your standard, unexceptional indie-rock fare, was called "Can't Stop A Train". It stopped me in my tracks; I've been thinking about it all day since. Luckily, and here's where KEXP gets props, the song is still available for download from their website, even if only as a Real Media file. I feel obliged to share it:

Christy McWilson - "Can't Stop A Train"

This song is originally from 2002's Bed Of Roses, Christy's second album (of two, so far). Her voice is classic and very country, fully possessed of that high, lonesome sound, and this song is perfectly suited for bringing it out. Simple, universal lyrics, a chugging rhythm that aspires to mimic a train, a plaintive melody and a phenomenal, rocking band: this can only be country rock. I challenge you to listen to this and not be moved, one way or another.

Christy McWilson - "The Serpentine River"

Christy McWilson - "Weight Of The World"

Here are two more songs from the same session that KEXP has kindly made available. "The Serpentine River" is also from Bed Of Roses, whereas "Weight Of The World" is from her first album, 2000's The Lucky One. These songs are also available to stream as Windows audio files if you'd prefer, also at the website linked above.

Check out Christy McWilson's website for (a little) more information.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

You Would Have Adored Me

Last week I had the strangest craving to hear the recordings of Woody Allen's standup routines. I've been aware of their existence for a couple years, but it wasn't until last week that I actually wanted to hear them. You see, I've been sort of a lukewarm fan of "Master Heywood Allen": his personality, at least as presented in his films, is something that I find more compelling than entertaining. My first few times through Manhattan and Annie Hall I might not have been having a great time, but something kept calling me back. Nowadays, the more and more I see of his work the more I appreciate it, and apparently (lo and behold!) my fandom is now full-blown enough for me to want to hear his standup from the early 60s.

Luckily, a local record store had the Rhino compilation Standup Comic for a mere $8.99. This particular compilation combines the recordings of three separate shows, from 1964, 1965 and 1968. I couldn't tell you if there are other extant recordings, but I'm pretty sure these bits are representative of his work as a nightclub comic, which is to say they fit right in with the persona he has crafted over the years. The secret to his success, I think, is that despite the extreme quirkiness of his character, he's incredibly easy to relate to. As he unfolds each bit in loving detail, it's almost too easy to visualize all of it actually happening to our hero. The listener accepts these preposterous anecdotes as real, exactly as Woody explains it in the "The Great Renaldo" bit:

I should just add, parenthetically, these stories are true, these things actually happen to me. I don't make them up. My life is a series of, um, these crises.
Some of the recordings are slightly marred by overeager audience laughter: these are the fanatics who, even at this early stage in his career, are just lapping it up. Just listen to the guy on "Private Life" or the one who does his best to ruin "A Love Story". Also, things occasionally seem a little too formulaic and predictable, which I think weakens the legendary "The Moose" bit and "The Lost Generation", with its punch-line (literally). I also don't like that the disc is sequenced in reverse chronology, opening with the 1968 recordings. Other than those minor quips, the recordings feature the same brainy, self-deprecating yet insightful humor Mr. Allen has parlayed into a career as an iconic film director. In other words, like his films, this is not bust-your-guts material. His rhythm and phrasing are outstanding. The one thing that surprised me though, perhaps because I haven't seen Stardust Memories, is how surreal some of the bits are, like the horse from "Second Marriage" that shows up at a sit-in in Georgia after eating a cube of sugar, or his mother knitting a chicken in "N.Y.U.". I mean, some of his stuff is practically Dylanesque in its imagery.

Woody Allen - "Bullet In My Breast Pocket"

This was recorded in Chicago at Mr. Kelly's in March, 1964. I love the way he's just playing with the sound of words on his tongue. It's a short and sweet, simple joke, the sort he tends to fare better with. It reminds me of the way Dylan switches cigarette and eyelids in "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again".

Woody Allen - "Down South"

This bit, also from Mr. Kelly's, is probably my favorite on Standup Comic. It's only been a week and I've already stolen the "I realized it wasn't my life" punch-line for my own purposes, but I doubt there's any way I'll ever be able to lead into it like he does here. I love the way he delivers the lines about grits too.

Woody Allen - "Eggs Benedict"

Pains in the chestal area, heartburn, Nazi recipes, a guy named Eggs Benedict, beating the medic out of $25, more heartburn, Eggs' mother, a twist ending...need I say more? This is taken from an April, 1965 performance in Washington D.C. at The Shadows.

Woody Allen - "The Vodka Ad"

This is the bit that opens the disc and it happens to be a highlight, if for no other reason than the line about being "breastfed from falsies". Typical Allen humor too, used on celluloid as recently as 2003's Anything Else: if you don't take advantage of an opportunity, someone close to you will. This was recorded in August 0f 1968 at Eugene's in San Francisco.

I just discovered, while researching for this post, that you can read along to the material at this website. Elsewhere, believe it or not, Woody Allen actually has his own website. Hey, everyone else does, why shouldn't he? Peruse at your own risk though; the comments on each film are hilarious, but you're liable to learn frightful things like the fact that he trained as a boxer for several months until his parents asked him to stop. Just imagine, poor little Woody in the ring...the stuff of nightmares!

Friday, August 26, 2005

Now I'm A Believer

I'm aware that the title of this post falls on the cheesy side of the fence, with a thud. I'm also aware that I'm more than a month late on this, but I still want to say a few words about the compilation that came with The Believer 2005 Music Issue, released way back in June. I picked up the magazine for the Carrie Brownstein interviewing Karen O feature, but I also happen to be a sucker for concepts like the one behind this disc: recent artists covering other (mostly) recent artists. I mean, I resent the notion that a song need be 30 years old before it can be reworked and claimed by a new artist. In my opinion, there's not enough of this sort of cross-pollination, switching and swapping of songs, today.

The results in this case are an interesting blend of straight-ahead indie pop and folk; not everything works, but the efforts are far from wasted. What's best about the comp is that the standouts don't come from the expected places. In fact, the only thing I suspected going in that turned out to be true is that Devendra Banhart's cover of Antony & The Johnsons' "Fistful Of Love" (already one of the best songs of recent memory) is the best thing here. Other than that, I found myself consistently pleasantly surprised.

Things start off smoothly: it's nice enough to hear Joanna Newsom's "Bridges & Balloons" in Colin Meloy's voice, but The Decemberists' version of the song certainly doesn't improve on the original. Ditto Spoon's take on Yo La Tengo's "Decora" and The Mountain Goats' read of The Silver Jews' "Pet Politics". Ultimately, CocoRosie's cover of Damien Jurado's "Ohio" emerges as the best thing about the first third of the disc. The middle of the comp sags beneath the oh-so-soft and slow whispers of Josephine Foster, Cynthia Mason and Espers, but things pick up again around Vetiver's bar-room sing-along cover of Michael Hurley's "Be Kind To Me". The rest of the disc doesn't squander the momentum earned there.

So, now's a perfect time for me to justify my claim that the highlights don't come from (too) familiar faces. I'll do my best:

San Serac - "Late Blues"

This is fantastic! This is what it's all about. All of these hot-shit name artists, and this guy I'd never heard of delivers the biggest surprise of the set. It's a cover of a very recent song by Ida, who also took part in this project. Ida's original was very slow, very smoky, but also stunning, very much in tune with what they do best. But where the original sounded a mournful tone at the start of something serious, San Serac turns it into a danceable, vaguely 80s piano-based manifesto. The sax breaks simmer and the drums hit hard and sensual, but it's San Serac's (Leonard) Cohen-at-a-club voice that keeps me coming back for more. I definitely have to track down this man's albums.

Visit San Serac at his online abode.

Jim Guthrie - "Nighttime/Anytime (It's Alright)"

I was feeling both The Constantines' Shine A Light and Jim Guthrie's Now, More Than Ever, but nothing on either of them grabbed me like this. Jim Guthrie takes The Constantines' song and turns it into a shuffling, bluesy confession of vulnerability. The violins that open the song are a great touch, the steady, repetitive groove really grounds the song in an engaging way and you can actually hear the words, something I've not quite managed with the original. Jim Guthrie's understated vocal is a major plus: just listen to the way he sings the "dead pigeons staring up at me" line. This makes me look forward to his next, more than ever.

Home is where the rock is, and it's also where you'll find Jim Guthrie online.

I don't know whether or not you can still pick up the June/July issue of The Believer at your local newsstand, but if you can I'd recommend splurging for it. If not, feel free to read more about the issue at The Believer's website. Otherwise, join me in holding my breath in hopes that they do something similar for the 2006 music issue.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Your Ass Is Local

Despite what 50 Cent says, local hip-hop is a beautiful thing. People come together at hip-hop shows in a way I've never seen at a rock concert, local or not. At least in Olympia, Washington they do. I don't know if that's representative; maybe hip-hop is just another thing that has been affected by the overall progressive attitude here. You might still get shot at a local hip-hop event in Atlanta or Detroit, I wouldn't know.

There's an energy and an interaction at local hip-hop shows that I find unique. I've always compared hip-hop to the folk revival of the 60s in that respect: it's usually a tight-knit community where a strong bond is felt, not just between the performers themselves but between the performers and the audience as well. There's a certain intimacy one feels when they know the MC on stage personally, a feeling that not many people will ever get from a Jay-Z or Nas, or even from people's champions Talib Kweli and Common. In my mind, it's the same feeling the kids in Greenwich Village must've had attending a local Gerde's Folk City hootenany where Ramblin' Jack and Bobby Dylan were throwing down.

Another thing that's refreshing about local hip-hop is that, usually, there's quite a different pool of subject matter the artist is pulling from. Not a lot of rappers will get on stage and spit that fake thug shit at a local club because they know the mean-muggers in the audience haven't been patted down at the door. Usually the bling-lingo is gone too, because not many local MCs can afford to floss. And here in Olympia, thanks to that progressive attitude I mentioned earlier, misogyny isn't going to go over easy either. Which means the artist is left with their own life, experiences and emotions for lyrical fodder, as they should be. If that's not enough, there's always politics!

All of this has been my (extremely) long-winded way of introducing an Olympian hip-hop duo I consider worthy of your attention, you being everyone not in Olympia. Their songs pretty much speak for themselves. Don't expect slick production or a cameo from Pharrell, this is genuine underground hip-hop made with a mic and words, y'a mean.

Resident Anti-Hero - "Everything Is Politics"

Resident Anti-Hero - "Ignorance Is Bliss"

Resident Anti-Hero - "I Got Problems"

These three songs come from the album Professional Madmen, available from Space Gnome Records. If you like what you heard, pick up the album. It's for a good cause and shit. Visit Resident Anti-Hero at their website.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Portland Rocks For Free

I take special interest in Portland's music scene, in part because there are so many worthwhile bands down there, but also because there's a good chance I'll someday end up calling Portland home. You can imagine my disappointment when I found out two weeks too late about Portland's PDX Pop Now! music festival. I can see you wondering: "big deal, you missed yet another festival you couldn't have afforded tickets for anyway". Not-uh homes, PDX ain't like that! You persist: "you don't even like crowds". You got me there, but PDX is oxygen. In their bid to become America's greatest city, Portland ain't leaving no stone unturned, no corner, um, unturned and no song unsung. It's a beautiful thing man.

But, like I said, I missed it. Luckily, I did not miss the compilation it produced, which I came across while hitting up Portland record stores this weekend. Two discs, seven dollars. That's $3.50 per disc. That's 17 cents per song. You see what I'm getting at? Portland rocks! And is it awesome? Well, the first disc opens with Sleater-Kinney and the second with Viva Voce, if that indicates anything to you. If it doesn't, let me spell it out: over the course of its 41 songs (many of them previously unreleased), PDX Pop Now! 2005 makes a case for Portland as the coolest music scene in the universe.

For those of you, like me, not currently from Portland (non-Portlanders, non-Portlandians?), I'm prepared to share me booty. Not like that, like this:

The Minders - "I'm So Low"

Stunning melody and male/female vocal interplay from another band that occasionally melds country/folk with more aggressive pop styles. "I'm So Low" is a great sing-along. I hear they are (were?) an E6 band too. Visit: The Minders.

The Blow - "Pile Of Gold"

I've been meaning to get heavily into The Blow lately after being introduced to her with "How Naked Are We Going To Get?". This otherwise unreleased song makes a perfect second date. This woman exudes style and playfulness. Visit: The Blow.

Alan Singley - "These Trees Are For Resting"

I need to make a compilation of songs about singing country songs. Martha Wainwright had a great one on her debut and now Alan Singley delivers this beautiful, quiet gem. Alan has the kind of voice I love to root for. "And the place is just jumping". Thank you for that Mr. Singley. Visit: Alan Singley.

The Gossip - "It's Over"

I very much like what I've heard of The Gossip, but I didn't know Beth Ditto could sing like this. Wow! I must've been listening to the wrong stuff. She sounds like a cross between Dolly Parton and Lisa Kekaula, if you can imagine that. This song is like a lost hit from the 80s, and one that actually deserved to be a hit. Visit: The Gossip.

Sunset Valley - "Smallest Man"

A hilarious song, from beginning to end. There are, quite simply, not enough songs about phone sex. Cheers to Sunset Valley for contributing one more to the pool. Visit: Sunset Valley.

Norfolk & Western - "A Gilded Age"

There are drinking songs and driving songs, and then there's this: a drinking and driving song. Great lyrics here, great pedal steel in the background too. N & W might be the biggest name in this post, and this song certainly makes it seem well-deserved. Visit: Norfolk & Western

PDX Pop Now! 2005 has come and gone, but its website is still up and it has lots of stuff worth checking out, like pictures, T-shirts and more information on this compilation. It lists several places where the comp is for sale online, but the only one that actually had it when I checked was Seattle's Sonic Boom. Have at it, kids!

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Everything You Know Now

By now, I probably shouldn't be surprised. While overstated, over-the-top records hog all the attention, subtle and sophisticated records tend to go ignored. I saw it happen last year with A Girl Called Eddy's debut and Simon Joyner's masterful Lost With The Lights On, the year before that to Janet Bean and Jolie Holland and this year it's happening again, to Inara George's All Rise. It's understandable, I suppose: more people have an easier time rallying behind the Funerals and Elephants of the world. It seems to me that quite a few people make the mistake of thinking that because an album is soft-spoken it doesn't have anything to say. But, you and I know that's not true. On my watch, at least some of those quieter albums are guaranteed to get their turn. Today, the spotlight belongs to Ms. George.

Inara George - "Fools In Love"

This Joe Jackson cover opens with a perfectly obvious truth posed as a question: "Fools in love, are there any other kinds of lovers?" From there, Inara remodels the new wave of the original into a gentle, almost mournful acoustic guitar lullaby for lovers. Her voice sounds like she knows the territory all too well. The chorus is a dizzying delight, like a merry-go-round, only without the merriness; in fact, it's a powerful metaphor for the aimlessness of falling in love, again.

Inara George - "Good To Me"

"Good To Me" is one of the more upbeat songs on All Rise, helped along by another remarkable chorus, which begins like this: "There hasn't been a time that I have wished I wasn't here with you". Then she plays some interesting tricks: the song is written from the perspective of someone who has been told they "have a face only a mother could love", perhaps more than once. It's not an ugly girls rise up anthem though; instead, the narrator has fallen in love with someone whose eyes are good to her, a man who can see in her what her mother sees. It's an unusual concept, for sure, but it makes its point confidently: true love certainly isn't skin deep.

I've no doubt that music listeners capable of focusing a little more intently on whatever they're listening to, as opposed to simply aurally gobbling up monster riffs and painfully in-your-face hooks, will find much to enjoy over the course of All Rise. To those people, I heartily recommend the album, which is probably readily available from your local record store or from a cool online merchant like CD Baby. To find out more about Ms. George, there's always her website, of course.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Gonna Crush This Little Boy

I spent the better part of yesterday driving around to record stores looking for Des Ark's debut from earlier this year, Loose Lips Sink Ships. It all started just before noon; I was listening to various mp3s that had amassed on my desktop. I checked the properties on a random file, only to find that it was 29 seconds long. Not expecting much, thinking it would be an easy delete, I clicked it on up and this is what I got:

Des Ark - "Some Are Love [Clip]"

Can you believe that? 29 seconds, every one of them brilliant. Here are those kick-ass lyrics again, for those of you who don't listen to the words:

Take what you can carry and the rest we will destroy
This summer's gonna wreck us, gonna crush this little boy
This sent me into quite a tizzy, the likes of which I haven't known in a while. I like to think that first line is a reference to Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". The way Aimee Argote sings these two lines, especially the word boy, gets me every time. And that's a lot, I must've listened to this clip at least 29 times. And so the search began...

I set out scouring the web for the rest of the song, but it was nowhere to be found. I did manage to find this other song though.

Des Ark - "Jesus Loves You (But Yr Still Comin Home With Me Tonight)"

It may not be as great as that "Some Are Love" clip, but it does have one of the best titles ever, right? All the same, it didn't satiate me. Into the trusty automobile I went...

My search ended later that night when I found Loose Lips Sink Ships at Everyday Records in Seattle, used no less. Took it out to the car, threw that baby into a glowing slit in the dashboard and...ah, satisfaction! It's like the scenes in the old Looney Tunes cartoons when someone's ass or head is on fire and all of a sudden they find snow, minus the steam. And yes, I know I could've payed 99 cents or what have you and had instant gratification, but I'm old school, y'a mean: if you don't have to work for it, it probably ain't worth it.

So, here's the full version of "Some Are Love".

Des Ark - "Some Are Love"

Does it live up to the promise? You bet your sheets it does. Obviously I've only listened to the full album a few times, but this band is onto something special. God willing, they've got a long, expectation-defying career ahead of them. I don't want to get all sacriligious on y'all, but if they keep at it I can see myself caring about them as much as I care about (moment of silence) Sleater-Kinney. Okay, maybe not as much, but up there. Aimee's voice is intensely emotive, used as a caress or a weapon as she sees fit. Tim Herzog sounds like a monster on drums, I'm looking forward to seeing dude live, which will be in just a few days if these tour dates hold true:

8.17.2005 Phoenix Theatre - Petaluma, CA
8.19.2005 Loveland - Portland, OR
8.20.2005 The Vera Project - Seattle, WA
8.22.2005 Lo-Fi Cafe - Salt Lake City, UT
8.23.2005 Rock Island - Denver, CO
8.24.2005 Jackpot Saloon - Lawrence, KS
8.25.2005 Sokol Underground - Omaha, NE
8.26.2005 Triple Rock Social Club - Minneapolis, MN
8.27.2005 Bottom Lounge - Chicago, IL
8.28.2005 Grog Shop - Cleveland, OH
8.29.2005 Buffalo Icon - Buffalo, NY
8.30.2005 The Middle East - Cambridge, MA
8.31.2005 Wallingford American Legion - Wallingford, CT

All these dates are with Engine Down and Bella Lea, two bands I've never heard. Good luck.

P.S. About the name, most references to the band call them Des_Ark, but they don't seem to refer to themselves as such on their website or in their liner notes. My advice is choose whichever one you like the most and roll with it!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Say No To Stars

I do my best to keep it positive and I think that by and large I've done a pretty good job of only writing about artists I actually like, but every now and then the urge to warn others away from an album overcomes me. Granted, free publicity is probably not the best way to affect an artist's success, but when something comes along that I find genuinely offensive to basic good taste, I feel it's my duty to say so. Bearing that in mind, I found Star's 2004 album Set Yourself On Fire so maddening that I had to have a sit-down with the people responsible. I caught up with Stars' main culprits Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan in New York (where else?) for the following no-holds-barred interview...

cool hand bak: First question, for whom did you write the songs that comprise Set Yourself On Fire?

TC: The kids, man! Anyone who's ever been in love, or just anyone who drinks a lot and has a lot of meaningless sex. Anyone's who wants to be 17 again, you know. Manhattanites, basically.

chb: Ah, that's what I feared. But don't you think that demographic, the one you're aiming for, is already well-versed in what you're singing about? Most of them aren't doing anything but getting drunk and having cheap sex, so why bother to write these songs?

AM: Yes, but they need anthems! And we need to make a living. I mean, I don't care if other people listen to our songs and see a dead horse. I see a fucking white stallion ready to mount.

chb: Alright, let me come at this from a different angle. How old are the two of you? Doesn't it feel even a little wrong, at your age, to be writing songs with such juvenile concerns at their heart?

TC: Stars, for us, is like a beautiful reminder of the failure that was our youth. It's like, none of us were cool, we weren't getting any action back then, so we might as well write about it now. And really, what else are we going to sing about? Paying the bills? Developing a beer belly? No one but Yo La Tengo can really write cool songs about adulthood.

AM: I'm in rock 'n' roll, I don't have time to question what's coming from my gut, you know what I mean? Besides, plenty of songwriters in their mid-twenties are still writing songs about teenage issues. The Strokes have that song where they sing about being worried about the finals and there's that "oh really, your folks are away" line, so it's not like we're the only ones.

chb: Yes, but those songs actually sound good coming from The Strokes. Pretty much their entire musical identity may be borrowed, but at least they sound convincing. They can pull it off. Your songs' lyrics are so atrocious that they've gone past the point of being awful and have come back around to being laughable. Like the one that begins "First time in the backyard something something it was pouring and we were drunk as shit". That had me rolling around on the floor in tears. Don't you...

TC (interrupting): We had to amuse ourselves, man. Like, I'll admit it sucks to be almost 30 and have to cater to what 17 year olds care about, but there's really no way around it. That's just the nature of the business we're in. They're the ones that buy CDs. It's like, don't hate the players, you know, hate the game.

chb: Huh?

TC: You've never heard that saying? Basically, I'm saying it's not our fault, you know, we're writing what the kids want to hear. My life is boring, why would I write about that?

chb: Fair enough. Let's change the topic. Due to America's neverending campaign to make Canada its bitch, the hip thing to do these days is to champion a lot of average Canadian bands. Do you think Stars have benefitted from that trend?

AM: Definitely! New York is like our home away from home. People are so kind to us there. Well, except the time we went to jail and were surrounded by nothing but black people, that was sad. But we love New York, we want to be big in America of course. I mean, who wants a fucking Juno when you could have a Grammy? We want to be all things to everyone!

TC: What's weird though is that at the same time that mediocre bands like us, Broken Social Scene and basically all our labelmates [Editor's note: Except Feist] are being lavished with praise and adoration, Canadian bands that really deserve international attention, like The Deadly Snakes and The Be Good Tanyas, are still going largely unnoticed. Even The Arcade Fire. I mean, they're okay, but they certainly don't justify the hype they've been getting in the States. But, I'm actually American, so I don't really care.

chb: I agree, that is weird. Why do you think that is?

TC: Well, for starters, it helps that we're virtually interchangeable with mediocre American bands like The Postal Service.

AM: That's not why. The real reason is that Stars is about LOVE! Love is an action, and Stars are active. Love is everything! Love is forgiveness, love is horrible and love is beautiful. Love Jesus, love Allah, love love and fuck everything else.

chb: Um, you're not really answering the question.

AM: Whoopee, loooovvveeeeee!!! Once we smoked weed through an apple. Loooovovveeee!!!

chb: Alright, that about wraps it up.

There you have it. As you can see, it's too late for me. I should've gone running as soon as I saw song titles like "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead", "What I'm Trying To Say" and "Soft Revolution". As soon I heard them make stupid attempts at being clever with lyrics like "six drinks too many" or "the velvet underground" (sung in earnest!), I should've set the disc on fire. If that weren't enough, the first lines of their bio should've driven me away for good:

Montreal in winter is a cold, cruel place. It's the sort of city where you have to chip the tears off your cheeks when you start to cry...
So, basically, I went through all that so you don't have to. Stay away from this album. Far, far away. Enough said.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Z = They Are Alive

Splinking of fine young bands (he was really splinking), My Morning Jacket have released details regarding their follow-up to 2003's masterful It Still Moves. Titled Z (not after the film, I'm guessing), the album is set to be released on October 4 and will contain ten new songs, including these two:

My Morning Jacket - "Dondante [Live]"

My Morning Jacket - "Off The Record [Live]"

These are taken from MMJ's July 12 performance at Bonnaroo. The sound quality is not great, but that should just further whet your appetite for the new album. "Dondante" has an otherworldly, gorgeous and for the most part wordless vocal from lead singer Jim James. Well, the first-half does. It's almost like two separate songs, but the drum crash certainly bridges them well. The sax at the end is, of course, making me very happy. I believe "Off The Record" is Z's first single.

I'm looking forward to hearing the album versions of both songs. It's gonna be no small task to top It Still Moves, which I consider to be the very best album released in 2003. Let's hope these boys are up to it.

My Morning Jacket - "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man [Live]"

Here we go! One of my favorite bands of today covering my very favorite Prince song — I can't ask for much more. It's pretty faithful to the Sign 'O' The Times take, but there ain't nothing wrong with that. At least they sound convincing, right? I've heard words like "funky" and "jazzy" thrown around to describe Z, so maybe covering Prince is more than just a one-off. I am partial to their more country-rock songs, but it's also nice to see them moving in new directions.

You can regularly visit My Morning Jacket's website to keep up to date as the release of Z nears, but you probably already knew that.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

You've Been Starring In My Dreams

2000's EP compilation Boyoubetterunow served as an introduction for many to a remarkable young band from Stockholm called The Concretes. Their first full-length album, The Concretes, went a great deal further, unveiling the band as one of the most important currently making music. For it's pitch-perfect combination of pure pop and more traditionally Swedish atmospherics, The Concretes was awarded the disctinction of being one of my favorite albums of 2003. Prestigious stuff, I know. What's more, brilliantly well-written songs such as "You Can't Hurry Love", "Seems Fine", "New Friend" and (somebody stop me!) "Say Something New" also found themselves seated comfortably among the year's best.

Fast-forward two years and it's time to ask the inevitable question, the one common to any waiting period: where have all The Concretes gone? Friends, I'm here to tell you that the world's most lovable octet is back in the studio working on their sophomore album. I'll confess to feeling more than a little anxiety over their decision to work with Saddle Creek guru Mike Mogis, but I have faith in The Concrete's talents and basic common sense. In other words, they've got good heads on their shoulders, they'll do the right thing. That album is to be loosely expected in early 2006.

In the meantime, there's cause for celebration: The Concrete's have combined numerous B-sides with the entirety of their hard-to-find 2001 EP Nationalgeographic for the release of their second compilation, this year's Layourbattleaxedown. This band is so consistent that many songs on this disc are as strong as what was released on The Concretes. Observe:

The Concretes - "Miss You"

The Rolling Stones - "Miss You"

Would you look there, it's a side-by-side post. The 'cretes first wowed me with this uncanny reworking of "Miss You" last October when I saw them live at Neumo's in Seattle. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The original disco is slowed to the speed of an iceberg floating by, and suddenly the central sentiments of the song don't seem so sleazy. Their version really explains why The Concretes have been playfully described as The Supremes fronted by Nico: lead singer Victoria Bergsman delivers in a detached, resigned tone that is perfect for the song. It makes lines like "I've been hanging by the phone" and "I've been haunted in my sleep" sound even more lonesome. Whereas The Stones' version prided itself on it's psychotic energy and Jagger's effortless portrayal of a tormented ("People think I'm crazy!") spurned lover, The Concretes version actually sounds a lot more desperate, albeit no longer in a sexual sense. I sure would've liked to hear Victoria tackle the Central Park verse though.

Bottom line, this was an inspired choice for The Concretes and the result is fantastic. It ranks just below Feist's reimagining of The Bee Gees' "Inside And Out" in terms of best covers in recent years. Any band that can take a Stones song and make it sound like their own probably has that certain je ne sais quoi, and The Concretes most certainly do.

The Concretes - "Oh Baby"

This gem hails from the aforementioned Nationalgeographic EP. There's something so compelling about the plain-stating of the fact of a failed relationship:

I came to see 'cause I wanted to speak to you
But when I came around you didn't treat me good
So I am going home with something new
And I will find me another way
It's almost a country song in it's simplicity and directness. It goes to show, sometimes just stating simple truths like the one expressed above is exactly what songwriting should be about. Of course, it helps to follow-up with a gorgeous, kick-ass chorus, which is exactly what "Oh Baby" does.

Visit The Concretes' website for some online action. They do a better job of updating their site than most, and some of the captions under their pictures are laugh-out-loud hilarious. If you ever get a chance to see them live, please do!

Friday, August 05, 2005

This Feeling Still Here In My Heart

Despite the fact that I feel bereft of originality on this matter, I am going to write about Bob Dylan again, specifically in terms of his show I saw last week. Why? Because seeing Dylan is always a special experience for me, unlike any other. I'm sure most Dylan fan(atic)s feel that way, but, possibly because I'm not one of the truly gone who follows his tour night after night, each show stays set apart, crystallized as one evening in time. Plus, there's always the uncertain element of it all. You've heard it before, but that's because it's true: the man is genuinely unpredictable. One never knows what to expect and, really, it's better to check your expectations (along with your camera!) at the gate.

Standing in front of the stage at a Dylan concert feels very much like sitting as the Master's feet. You can sense what is so magically enduring about his legend, even if you cannot name it. As he sings, whether well or not, there is a feeling that he instills in me, a feeling that remains days after the final notes of "All Along The Watchtower", his usual closer, have faded from my ears. Whereas after a Devendra Banhart or Bright Eyes concert the details are soon forgotten, the looks on Dylan's face, the unique phrasing of specific words and even his and his band's dresswear remain clearly within view of my mind's eye.

Bob Dylan - "New Morning [Live]"

Bob Dylan - "God Knows [Live]"

The saying goes that Dylan never sings any song the same way twice, and I buy that. One of my favorite consequences of this is his amazing ability to recast songs I normally don't much care for (to put it nicely) as the highlights of a show. Last March in Denver he did this with "John Brown" and "This Wheel's On Fire", and last week in Bend, Oregon he did it with the two songs above. Mind you, these versions are not from Bend; "New Morning" is from the June 12 show in Zebulon, North Carolina and "God Knows" is from the July 24 show in Calgary, Alberta, but they're both fairly similar to the ones I caught in Bend.

"New Morning", as you may well know, is from 1970's New Morning, my very least favorite Dylan record. Yet, something about the drama of this country-rock arrangement makes the song sound better, to these ears, than it ever did before. Dylan builds the suspense at the beginning with a solo moment at the ol' skeleton keys, his instrument of choice (or, some speculate, necessity, due to back problems) these days. The lightness of the album version is completely erased as Bob's current band digs into a pounding new creation.

"God Knows", unlike "New Morning", isn't a song I dislike so much as I'm not greatly familiar with it, being as it is off of 1990's Under The Red Sky, an album I simply don't put on very often. Still, I believe the album version severely pales in comparison to this ramshackle rendition. I don't know if it quite comes across on this recording, but the entrance of the drums at the end of the first bridge (more specifically, brilliantly after the line "God knows it could snap apart right now / like putting scissors to a string") made for one hell of a conniption in Bend. Drummer George Recile truly proves his worth on this one.

One reason "God Knows" stood out was certainly because it's better suited than many of his songs to his current voice, which has seen better days to say the least. Another reason these two songs were highlights is that the original recordings of "God Knows" and "New Morning" actually leave room for improvement, whereas Dylan will probably never improve upon the near-perfection of his best songs. Of course, that doesn't mean he shouldn't try.

Bob Dylan - "Honest With Me [Live]"

Since the release of 2001's Love And Theft (a masterpiece, by the way), "Honest With Me" has rarely been absent from Dylan's set. I've heard it four or five times myself. It's become easy to overlook, as common as it is, but it's a song that all the recent incarnations of Bob's band have really gone to town on. Like "God Knows", one reason it works so well is due to the – shall we call it the gravity of Dylan's changing voice. It never fails to make those who only came to hear "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Tangled Up In Blue" think twice, so it must be all right.

Bob Dylan - "I Believe In You [Live]"

Judging from the following three songs, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Dylan's current band is one non-stop touring force built exclusively for rocking out. I've merely been saving the best for last, and here's where they show how flexibile they are.

"I Believe In You" is one of Dylan's finest compositions from his Gospel days. This version, recorded on July 21 in Vancouver, B.C., certainly doesn't better the 1979 Slow Train Coming original, but I was still ecstatic to hear it live for the first time in Bend.

Bob Dylan is the greatest, most mercurial and most expressive singer I've ever heard. No other voice communicates with such emotional depth. With that in mind, it makes sense to me that a lot of the discussion of Dylan's current live show, among the die-hard contingent at least, tends to center on the condition of his voice. For myself, I'll say that I do miss the melody in his voice. He doesn't actually sing most songs these days, delivering them instead as if it were full-moon at a spoken-word performance, i.e. an expressive howl. When he does decide to sing, it's usually still fairly stunning, as this song attests. He slips back into a growl on the chorus, but that barely diminishes the beauty of this wonderfully ruminative version.

The adventures of the Master will resume in October, when are hero finds himself in Europe again. God knows what his band will look and sound like by then, but if I were European I wouldn't miss it for all the milk in Milwaukee. His website.

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