Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best of 2009

I haven't heard everything released this year, but here are my favorites to this point:

Album: "The Hazards of Love" by The Decemberists. Runner Up: "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" by Phoenix.

Track: "Easy" by Deer Tick. Runners-Up: "1901" by Phoenix, "The Wanting Comes In Waves / Rapid" by The Decemberists, "Bull Black Nova" by Wilco.

Live Act: Art Brut. Runners-Up: The Flaming Lips, Phoenix.

Deer Tick - Born on Flag Day

Rating: B+

Deer Tick is kind of a litmus test for your take on the importance of authenticity in rock 'n roll music. On the face of it, Deer Tick are just a bunch of poseurs. Look at Born on Flag Day's hidden track: A twenty-something dude from Rhode Island (John Joseph McCauley III, the band's lead singer, guitar player, and songwriter) rasping out Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" live, over stereotypical live bar-room sounds - bottles clinking, pool balls clacking, laughter and talking over the guitar strumming. Does it get any more contrived than that?

So how you feel about authenticity is likely how you're going to feel about Deer Tick. If you think blues can only be written by those who've suffered, if you think country music is for southerners, and if a bunch o' young white guys covering an old black dude (as in the aforementioned Leadbelly cover) makes you feel uneasy - you're probably not going to dig Deer Tick.

The flipside is the argument that everything in the rock idiom is derivative - that it's the All-American melting pot of blues, country, folk, and bluegrass, and that criticizing rock music for being derivative is like criticizing ice cream for being cold. Sure, some bands wear their influences on their sleeves, as Deer Tick does, but that just means they're producing a more coherent synthesis.

I don't find either argument entirely persuasive, but a lot of that is around what "authenticity" even means. I think authenticity is important, but confining authenticity to antiquated notions of who should be playing certain kinds of music is artificially limiting. The thing that makes music, or any art, compelling is the extent to which it touches on common chords on human emotion. John Joseph McCauley III's experiences may differ tremendously from the artists who created early blues music, early country music, and even early rock 'n roll - but he knows what loneliness feels like, the appeal of wide open spaces, and the propulsive energy of music; and, most importantly, he can pass that along.

Which isn't to say Born on Flag Day is a masterpiece. It's uneven, as if by design, with hard rocking numbers sandwiching sleepier tracks, blues following country following rockabilly. The two standout tracks are as good as anything released in 2009. "Easy" is a vicious straight-ahead rocker, propelled by a deft Christopher Dale Ryan (seriously, why do these guys all use their middle names) bassline and a snarling chorus ("No you don't know / how easy it is"). "Smith Hill," which refers to an area of the band's hometown of Providence, RI, is a wonderfully written song. The harmonies coming in on the last line of the verse "Tonight I'll see my sweetheart / I've got a fifty dollar bill / But somewhere in her weak heart / She knows I never will" are chilling. The strings on the track make it sound a little slick and over-produced; Deer Tick is a band that sounds better raw than polished. They blew me away live, but the recorded product is not quite as strong.

Which brings us back to authenticity, I guess. Your mileage may vary on what authentic means, whether a bunch of white Northern youngsters from the city can play music originated by folks from basically the exact opposite circumstances. It works for me, as long as they're playing the hell out of it, and Deer Tick are.

Buy it from Amazon (MP3 Format) (only $5 if you act now!)
Deer Tick on MySpace

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Le Loup - Family

Rating: B-

Ah, the sophomore album. When a band's debut meets with some success, as in the case of Le Loup's debut album, 2007's The Throne of the Third Heaven of The Nation's Millennium General Assembly, it leaves a world full of possibilities - and potential pitfalls. There is a delicate balance between evolving from the original sound and departing from it entirely. Many of the great first albums were followed by let-down second albums, and many of the great second albums were made by bands with uninspiring first albums.

Le Loup is trying hard to strike a fine balance here. The serpentine melodies of Throne are back, this time augmented with more harmonies and African-style polyrhythms. The touring band has changed considerably (see my review of their recent Boston concert), with three previous members departing. Largely gone is auteur Sam Simkoff's banjo, though a sampled five-string does make some appearances in "Morning Song" and "Go East." In short, they haven't thrown out the original formula, but there have been changes.

I wanted to like this album more than I do. I like it fine; it's got beautiful harmonies and arrangements, and some of the tunes are great - "Sherpa," in particular, is the kind of tune that will stick in your head for days. It's fun, and pretty, and catchy, and tasteful - and if it didn't follow Throne, and its existential creepiness, maybe I would have liked it more. I listened to Family again and again, waiting to have something grab me like "Planes Like Vultures" and especially "I Had a Dream I Died" - and it didn't happen. This is a good record, but not an arresting one.

I suspect, months down the line, I'll have one of the tunes come on shuffle and it will strike me in a way that it did not over the past few weeks, and I will re-listen to the whole album and it will be like hearing it anew. Until then ... here's where I'm at.

Buy it from Amazon (MP3 Format)
Le Loup Site

Friday, December 4, 2009

Live review - 12/4/2009 Phoenix and Spoon at The Orpheum

Phoenix - I had seen the Versailles band at ACL, where they impressed the hell out of me, so I suspected I was in for a treat here. The sextet opened with "Lisztomania," off their latest offering, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and quickly had the crowd in thrall. They mixed in some loud fuzz rock from their previous albums to complement the dancier numbers off Wolfgang. Lead singer Thomas Mars showed his typical humility, thanking the crowd profusely between numbers, but also displayed some swagger, swinging the microphone before catching it. He even dropped the mic on the stage before walking off during finale "1901," before he and the band came on for a final chorus to raucous applause. Phoenix is quickly becoming one of my favorite live acts.

Spoon - I had a thought partway through the set - "Is Spoon cool?" I don't normally think of or care about whether a band is cool, but Spoon begs the question. The quartet showed up clad in fashion boots, skinny jeans, and black collared shirts, played with an absolute minimum of between-song banter, and often unleashed classic rock poses like the pigeon-toed, hunched over thrashing guitar solo. Then there's the music - all distortion and jagged-edges, with Britt Daniel's is-he-British? voice snarling and rasping and throwing class rock-'n-roll ejaculations and affectations everywhere. Spoon is cool.

Except that Spoon is not cool. Spoon has songs like "My Mathematical Mind" and "The Beast and Dragon, Adored." Daniel's lyrics identify not with the cool kid in school but with "the waterboy," according to "The Underdog," the single on their latest album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Set with these lyrics and themes, the distorted guitar and intermittent echoes vocals and effects veer to the weird. Spoon is not cool.

Ultimately, of course, it doesn't matter, but from my perspective it seems that Spoon is angling to be the coolest of the dorks, as if to see, "We may not be cool, but we can at least be cool about not being cool." Whatever; they rocked. Sneak peaks into some of the new songs suggest a band more comfortable to let songs stretch out with extended solos and instrumental interplay. The previous times I've seen Spoon, the live show was pretty faithful to the albums, but they showed a willingness to add effects, vocal ticks, and solos to existing tunes. The set, from opener "The Way We Get By" to closer "You Got Yr Cherry Bomb," was well-chosen and terrifically executed. The set made me excited for new album Transference, which drops in January.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Movie Review - Here Come The Waves

I had a chance last night to check out a sneak preview of Here Come The Waves, an hour-long animated film made to accompany their 2009 album The Hazards of Love. I adore this album so I was intrigued to see accompanying visuals, especially on the big screen at my favorite movie theatre (The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square). At first, I was kind of hoping for a narrative - Hazards is one of those albums where you feel like you know what's going on, but it's really more a series of interconnected vignettes than a coherent story - but the trailer dashed the idea that Waves would shed any light on Hazards' plot.

Instead, Waves gave us a series of moody, psychedelic images that augmented the emotional feel of Hazards rather than the literal content. There were four different animators. Peter Sluzska takes the viewer through a world of nature, woods full of trees and flowers that sometimes are static and sometimes are smashing together or falling apart or ejaculating color in the fierce "Won't Want For Love." Julia Pott then takes over - her quirky, cartoonish drawings don't quite fit with the other artists but were probably my favorite, full of dancing bears, animated constellations, and appropriately enough, a ship buffeted by waves in "The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid." She often takes the viewer into items, showing dancing subatomic particles or fantastical elements. For "The Rake's Song," Hazards' creepiest moment, we get the disturbing animation of Guilherme Marcondes, who treats us to skeletons and skeletal branches rushing past a blood red circle. While Pott's view dove into items, Marcondes prefers to have the imagery rushing past a mostly static image, creating the impression of an animated painting rather than animation. Finally, Santa Maria begins the album's final quarter with beams of brilliant light and rapid-fire antique store knick-knacks before easing into subdued night sky scenes for the album's poignant closer, "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)."

What's the verdict? If you love Hazards of Love, get a copy of this and throw a party for your other Decemberists-loving friends (or those receptive) - it'll be a fun way to spend an hour and five bucks. If you don't have Hazards, this is a good introduction, but I'd probably just go ahead and pick up the album. And if, by some bizarre quirk of fate, you're lukewarm or miraculously don't like the album, you'll want to skip Here Come the Waves. It's not going to shed any light on exactly who Margaret or The Rake or the Queen are or what they're doing, but it will give you some beautiful, quirky images to go with The Decemberists' beautiful, quirky songs.

The Decemberists Site
Here Come The Waves Trailer
Buy The Hazards of Love at Amazon

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Live Review - 11/12/2009 Infamous Stringdusters at Johnny D's

Sarah Jarosz - the precocious virtuoso played a short, tight set, showcasing her powerful voice and skilled playing. The whole set was solo, but her deft picking on banjo and guitar provided both rhythm behind her voice and intricate solos between verses. You can count me among those who are looking forward to seeing what the future holds for her.

The Infamous Stringdusters - I was struck by a thought partway through the sextet's set - why? Why does a group of six musicians, all relative young (late twenties, early thirties) and extremely talented, decide to get on the road and play 150 nights a year, driving all day in vans and sleeping in hotels to play small venues for what can't possibly be a lot of money?

I have so many questions about them. There are six musicians (one more than typical in a bluegrass act) and a whopping five them (mandolist Jesse Cobb, guitarist Andy Falco, fiddle Jeremy Garrett, dobro player Andy Hall, banjo player Chris Pandolfi) are soloists - all but bass player Travis Book, and he even takes the compulsory once-per-night bass solo. Book, Garrett, and Hall all sing. How do they manage all the egos? How can six musicians with such skills all decide to just coexist? How do they avoid stepping on each others' toes? And how do they end up making music this good?

I would love to follow them around, to see what the give and take is, to see who argues with whom and how they resolve things. I'd love to get a sense of what makes them tick, whether some of them feel unappreciated, who the leaders are or whether it's a true democracy. I'd love to see how traveling affects their personal lives, whether their wives and girlfriends travel with them and how that dynamic stresses the unit. I feel like I would get an understanding about something - the human dynamic, the core of music, what makes a band successful, what drives artists and musicians.

Because something is driving these guys. How else could they play so amazingly well, feverish solo after feverish solo, great arrangements, strong vocals and harmonies? At the end of the day, what are a bunch of super-talented young guns doing striving continuously to be the best bluegrass band in the world? And let's be clear - that's a realistic possibility for the 'Dusters. But no matter how amazing their music is, how much reach will their art have? How much fame and fortune will come to them? How much love and fandom will they inspire?

I thought about all these things, but it was really pretty immaterial. The Infamous Stringdusters have become masters of straddling the line between jam band and bluegrass, eschewing the three-minute compositions of Bill Monroe for extended solos. Background playing soared above simple rhythm and occasional banjo or fiddle fills to create a real sense of tension and building in songs. Oftentimes it would seem like we'd lose the melody in a swirl of notes, only to come back to it tidily, like a mystery movie wrapping up its loose ends. Of particular note were the extended version of Old And In the Way's classic "Midnight Moonlight," which they introduced as "classic jamgrass" and then did everything possibly to honor that moniker, and encore "Fork In the Road," which the group played completely unplugged in true bluegrass pickin' style.

I don't know why they do it or how long it will last. I'm not sure how it works or why it works. But I'm grateful I saw them at Johnny D's, perfect. And maybe next time, they'll be even better.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

!!! - Myth Takes

Rating: B-

Most folks would say there are Stones people and Beatles people. I would make that dichotomy a trichotomy and add Bob Dylan. I love all three of those, but I'm a Dylan guy. This shows up in the rest of my musical taste. Dylan's work is rooted in all of Americana - folk, blues, country, and early rock n' roll - and music with these influences speaks to me. And I'm a lyrics guy - some people just view vocals as another instrument, paying little attention to the words, but to me they are vital to the meaning and emotion communicated by the song.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that !!! is the kind of band I normally don't have a lot of use for. The music derives not from the roots of American music but from dance beats and ambient guitar and keyboard sounds. The lyrics are at times immature and shallow, and even at their best strive for only cleverness rather than emotional impact. Take one of the album's highlights, the irrepressibly catchy "Must Be The Moon," which chronicles a club one-night stand. The song starts off dumb ("One drink two drinks three drinks four / She had eyes that I couldn't ignore") and only gets dumber ("You could blame it on the music but it wouldn't be right / 'Cause I've gotten lucky to some pretty bad tunes / Must be the moon, must be the moon"), but it's almost irrelevant when the beats are this catchy. Lead singer Nic Offer has a goofy vulnerability behind his swagger, selling the lyrics no matter how silly.

In short, !!! is catchy, shallow, bouncy, quirky, uneven, and fun.

Random notes and opinions:
  • Gotta love the way the album starts (in the title track), with haunting keyboard sounds over a catchy drum beat.
  • The instrumental outro to "Bend Over Beethoven" sounds like what would happen if Interpol guitarist Daniel Kessler made a dance track. If that sounds awesome, it is.
  • Closer "Infinifold" is likely supposed to be an "end of the night clubbing, chill-out" track, but it just makes me sleepy. Maybe because I've just been sitting at home listening, not dancing all night.
Buy it from Amazon (MP3 Format)
!!! on MySpace

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Greg Kot - Scary Halloween Songs

Great blog post from the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot on his favorite Halloween songs:

I'll add a few more favorites:
Ryan Adams - "Halloweenhead" - it's got Halloween right there in the title.
Big Star - "Holocaust" - one of the great poppy bands ever with one of the great creepy songs ever.
Nick Cave - "Red Right Hand" - no surprise that this was used in "The X-Files" pilot.
Cranberries - "Zombie" - OK, it's a war song, not a zombie song, but it's still pretty haunting.
Howlin' Wolf - "Evil (Is Going On)" - even more sinister than it sounds thanks to Howlin's Wolf's gruff, passionate vocals.
Del McCoury Band - "It's Just the Night" - the definitive bluegrass Halloween song.
The Misfits - "Last Caress" - who knew rape and murder could be this fun?
Bill Monroe - "My Last Days on Earth" - this stark instrumental musing on death will stay with you.
Okkervil River - "For Real" - the modern masters of the murder ballad with their most potent take on it.
Outkast - "Dracula's Wedding" - what is a vampire scared of?
Portishead - "Sour Times" - should be in ever noir soundtrack.
Radiohead - "Climbing Up the Walls" - I used to nap in college listening to OK Computer and I'd wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of this song.
The Ramones - "Chain Saw" - because part of Halloween is silly, campy horror fun.
The Raveonettes - "Aly, Walk With Me" - the haunting opener to their 2008 offering Lust, Lust, Lust.
Tool - "Opiate" - no, it's not subtle, but it is frightening.
Wilco - "Bull Black Nova" - psychological nightmare of their latest LP.
Warren Zevon - "Werewolves of London" - cliched, but it's gotta be in there.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mindwalk Blvd - Art Crime EP

Boston-area power trio Mindwalk Blvd takes some steps forward on their brief but satisfying EP Art Crime. The three songs - "Alone," a murky, heavy tune reminiscent of Bleach-era Nirvana, power ballad "What Do You Say," and title track "Art Crime," with its menacing chorus ("You can't escape from the only world you know") - show a group increasingly comfortable in their songwriting. The musical chops have been present for a while in the teenagers, and are evident again here in Tyler Hudson's fierce drumming, Mike Avakian's deft bass lines, and Jordan Ferreira's chunky rhythm and nimble solos on guitar.

This EP was produced by well-known metal producer Andrew Murdock, aka Mudrock, who has previously worked with Godsmack and Avenged Sevenfold. He mixes things pretty tight here, getting a good sound from the trio without too many bells and whistles. The few augmentations are hit (the walking keyboard sound on closer "Art Crime" adds a spookiness to the atmosphere) or miss (auto-tuned vocals on opener "Alone" - this track sounds better live). Still, he has definitely coaxed out the group's best songwriting to date. The future for this talented band is bright and it's exciting to see what it holds.

Buy it from the band's site
Mindwalk Blvd Site

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Live Review - 10/16/2009 Art Brut at The Middle East

Most art comes from poor people or rich people, with little from the middle class. This makes sense for two reasons: 1) Middle class folks, unlike the poor, have higher-percentage career opportunities (it's a lot easier to become an investment banker than a rock star), but unlike the rich, actually do have to work, leaving little time for the thousands of hours it takes to and 2) the plight of the middle-class just isn't that exciting. Art Brut is decidedly middle class: singer Eddie Argos speaks of taking the bus in "Passenger," yet he has enough spending money for "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes."

So how does Art Brut make the middle-class struggle appealing? The answer has developed over their three studio albums until the dichotomy of their latest offering, Art Brut Vs. Satan, where they've literally set themselves in opposition to The Evil One. And who is Lucifer? Big-time record labels, big time rock stars, record stores that don't have records ("I hate DVDs and computer games" Argos screamed during "Bad Weekend"), and, according to song "Demons Out!," the record-buying public itself. The good guys: Art Brut and a like-minded group of bands, playing for fun with their friends, "Slap Dash For No Cash," making no money but making records, inspiriting music, and having a good time. This challenge is cast not as "You gotta fight for your right to party," but as the eternal struggle between Good and Evil.

So what kind of show does a band that sees the world like this put on? They blast out their songs, one after the other, volume on 11. They stop singing in the middle of a song to tell you that you must go home and start a band with people who aren't at the concert. They pay homage to their idols - leading off with the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner" and also inserting the Ramones and Morrissey into their songs - and tear down those on the side of evil - such as Kings of Leon. "My sex is on fire ... What the fuck does that mean?" Argos asked pointedly during "Slap Dash For No Cash," an homage to sloppy garage rock. Art Brut themselves are not quite as sloppy as they were the last time they were in town, with lead guitarists Ian Catskilkin actually busting out a few guitar solos this time, though Argos' half-talking / half-singing remains delightfully un-hip.

All of which is to say, if they come to your town, go see them. Go see them. Your ears will ring. You will wonder if what Argos does is actually singing. You you will try to decide if they are completely un-punk or the most punk band imaginable. You will see Argos stage dive and climb into the stand. You will shout "Art! Brut! Top of the Pops!" And you will dance and have a great friggin' time. And maybe when you come home, call up a couple friends and start a band. Or at least drag them to the next Art Brut show.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mos Def - Ecstatic

Rating: B-

OK, so I've listened to this album through seven or eight teams, seen Mos Def live, and I don't know what "The Ecstatic" is. The term is sprinkled liberally throughout the album, usually as an interjection, with no context clues. References to "The Ecstatic" (henceforth I will dropping the quotes in referring to it) in the album include:
  • Leadoff track "Supermagic" features the ecstatic, bookended by a Malcolm X plea to "change this miserable condition that exists on this earth" and Mos Def referring to "classic flow" and "super magic black origin freshly out of dopeness."
  • In "Twilight Speedball," a song about drugs, Ecstatic is mentioned in the chorus.
  • "We know, y'all know / Ecstatic, there it is," appears in the chorus to "Auditorium." Thanks, Mos Def: that really helps. Actually, there may be clues in here; the track is about the mindlessness of modern life ("They going through the motion, they dimming down the focus") and the power of hip-hop to transcend ("I feel it in my bones, black, I'm so wide awake"). Slick Rick reinforces this theme, telling a story of a soldier in Iraq met with hostility by the locals until he lays down some smooth flow.
  • "Life in Marvelous Times" features the couplet "watching asphalt and observing the Sabbath / creates an Ecstatic and there you have it." So there's that.
  • In closer "Casa Bey," Mos Def himself is described as "M-Def the black, fantastic raw / Dynamic, true Ecstatic, ghetto outstanding."

The theme seems to be this: life is messed up, life has always been messed up, but there is a magic to life as well. This magic inspires Mos Def, and seems to inspire all great hip-hop.

No song conveys the fullness of this better than "Life In Marvelous Times." Mos Def relays the squalor of his childhood abode ("This is Bed-Stuy 82' / Ninth floor, three tiny rooms, one view"). And it seems things haven't changed: "Crash-landings routinely happen / some survive, others never rise from the ashes." Yet, despite it all, "this raw cold life is a beautiful thing." Finally, fatalistically, "we can't be alive in no time but now." The Ecstatic, it seems, is a force of transcendent joy and hope in a world gone wrong.

So how's the album? Oh yeah, it's good. Mos Def gets a lot of credit for being literate and talented - and it's deserved. But that praise ignores the confidence and relentlessness of his flow. He launches into "Priority" with short, fierce lines that have you invested before the track has barely begun: "Peace before everything / God before anything / Love before anything / Real before everything" - lyrics, that, in lesser hands, might come off as sissy or trite. There's a very real toughness to Mos Def, something that is easy to forget when he's off doing Michel Gondry film. The beats, particularly the sizzling guitar line in opener "Supermagic" provide a diverse, interesting style for Mos Def to spit over.

The album's not flawless - you have to admire the chutzpah to sing / rap in Spanish, but I'm probably going to skip "No Hay Nada Mas" the next five times it comes up on shuffle. "Roses" is a little sleepy. And "Workman's Comp" - what's going on with the accent there? Still, this is a solid album - very listenable, and with some meat as well. May The Ecstatic be with you.

Buy it from Amazon (MP3 Format)
Mos Def Site

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Live Review - 10/13/09 Le Loup at T.T. the Bear's

The Wailing Wall - the product of Jesse Rifkin and whomever he can round up to play, they sounded like they'd been playing together for a while. The poetic lyrics and nasally voice make Rifkin at first sound like a Bob Dylan / Jeff Mangum wanna-be, but the jazz-influenced saxophone and feel for bringing out the meaning in songs made them a tasty appetizer. Sadly, the turnout for the early show was poor: Rifkin joked early on, "How are you doing? I mean you, personally, how are you doing?"

The Nurses - let the comparisons to Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, etc. begin. The Portland, OR trio employs a lot of the layered harmonies that the other new alt-folk bands do, but they get really amazing density out of just two vocalists. Lead singer / primary guitarist Aaron Chapman and keyboardist / backup vocalist John Bowers would often sing a harmony line, then loop it while singing other material. The result was such a dense layering of sound that I kept looking for a fourth band member; by the end of the song there would be a dizzying ocean of noise. An engaging opening act.

Le Loup - I saw them when they came around two years ago, and boy has the band changed - three of the former members are gone, with May Tabol, Nicole Keenan, and Dan Ryan departing and long-time studio collaborator Christian Ervin joining the touring band. The sound has morphed too - lead singer Sam Simkoff had no banjo in sight, preferring the keyboards, though his wild dancing was still in evidence. Axemen Ervin, Michael Ferguson, and Jim Thomson between two guitar / bass and three guitar / no bass arrangements, but the playing was tasteful - songs were allowed to breathe, but no six-minute guitar solos here.

The set was heavy on tracks from the just-released Family; I only counted two songs from their debut album (The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly). Even those had a different spin on them - "We Are Gods! We Are Wolves!" turned into an all-out percussion slugfest, with no fewer than three members of the band bashing on something. The drums were the order of the day, as a couple others songs were similarly augmented. Even when there was just drummer Robby Sahm going, he provided key rhythmic counterpoints to Simkoff's vocals. The music might get ethereal and dreamy, but there was the snare drum bringing it back to earth.

Le Loup played just over an hour but the set was tight and solid, without any dragging moments despite the late hour (they came on after 11 PM on a Tuesday). I'm looking forward to sitting down with my copy of Family and taking a deeper dive.

The Wailing Wall Site
The Nurses Site
Le Loup Site

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Austin City Limits - Day Three

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears - wow, he's got some pipes. Otis Redding is the most common comparison, but Joe Lewis' voice reminds me of The Hardest-Working Man in Showbusiness, James Brown, if Brown decided to make crunchy, raunchy blues rock. Lewis' energy, passionate voice, and never-a-clean-note guitar playing overshadow the sometimes immature lyrics, and he had the crowd bopping along despite the early hour.

The B-52s - amazingly still at it, still turning out the same infectious pop they ever did. The crowd obviously roared for hits "Roam" and "Love Shack," but the rest of the material kept the audience engaged as well.

Arctic Monkeys - whether the infectious punk pop of "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor" or the murkier stuff from their new album, they were electrifying. It's easy to get lost in how precocious they are and how clever the lyrics are, but the Arctic Monkeys can play. Blazing guitar solos and rapid drum riffs kept the pulses pounding. A major highlight of the whole festival was an extended version of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds classic "Red Right Hand." The Monkeys were faithful to the dark feel of the original but with a punk energy that was all their own. I liked the Arctic Monkeys before but I'm a believer now.

Passion Pit - the Boston-based band kept the audience dancing through their boisterous set. Between them and Girl Talk, a little later, the X-BOX360 stage was party central for Sunday.

The Dead Weather - I missed half the set, unfortunately, but caught a major highlight that was definitely the sexiest moment of ACL - Jack White stepping out from behind the drums to duet with Allison Mosshart on closer "Will There Be Enough Water." The two, just inches away around the same microphone, injectic a bluesy sleaziness only hinted at on the album cut, and White's blistering guitar solos took the song to the next level.

Girl Talk - what a great jam party atmosphere. From 100 yards deep, just a see of hands and people bouncing to Greg Gillis' odd mix of hip-hop, classic rock, and various and assorted other music. The stage was full of people dancing about, while Gillis would periodically climb aboard his table and sometimes just stand there at his laptop to do his magic. Not the headiest stuff in the world, but loads of fun.

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears Site
B-52s Site
Arctic Monkeys Site
Passion Pit Site
The Dead Weather Site
Girl Talk Site

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Austin City Limits - Day Two

Deer Tick - "It's 11:45, so if you think my voice sounds bad normally ..." began lead singer / guitarist John Joseph McCauley III, looking more than a little like Thomas Jane's character from Boogie Nights. Any raggedness in his voice was welcome edge, complimenting their blues, country, and surf-rock-tinged rock. They betrayed their influences by covering Lightin' Hopkins and Townes Van Zandt, but it's hard to imagine either of them closing with Richie Valens' "La Bamba," as the Providence quintet did before being cut-off mid-song for going over their 40 minutes. Even their quiet songs turned loud and anthemic, as exemplified by opener "Easy," with it's snarling chorus "You don't know how easy it is." A great wake-up to the festival's second day.

!!! - the Sacramento group was also struck by the early hour. "We do, like, moody nightclub music - and it's 2:30 in the afternooon," lead singer Nic Offer noted halfway through the set. "Normally we haven't even had our coffee by now." If he was sleepy, it didn't show - he stalked around the stage like a modern-day Mick Jagger, gesticulating rudely with a microphone stand and repeatedly climbing over equipment and jumping into the stands. Between (and sometimes during) songs, the band kept things light by repeatedly shouting "God dammit!" to crack up drummer Paul Quattrone. !!! is a terrific live act; if you're not dancing, there's something wrong with you.

Bon Iver - the first real dud of the festival. I loved For Emma, Forever Ago, their 2008 album, and enjoyed the performance of Justin Vernon and company in Boston last year. In the open festival setting, their spare acoustic music came off as sleepy rather than moody. Two exceptions: anthemic crowd favorite "Skinny Love," amplified from the studio version with extra percussion, and the closer "The Wolves (Act I and II)."

Mos Def - the Brooklyn MC was nearly a half-hour late for his scheduled show, but delivered a solid set of literate hip-hop. He showed a range of talents, drumming, rapping, and singing, freestyling a song ("You feel like you should know this / But I just made it up"), and even breakdancing a little with the dance troupe he brought out for the finale. The set was heavy on this year's strong Ecstatic, and went over well with the fans despite his tardy arrival.

The Decemberists
- as has been their modus operandi on this tour, the group played The Hazards of Love front-to-back. If you love this album and you love the Decemberists (as I do), this is exactly as expected - wild and awesome, with band members switching instruments, goofball theatrics, and some of the most awesome and gorgeous songs of the year - "The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid" and "The Hazards of Love 4 - The Drowned" to name two. If you find the Decemberists dorky and annoying, nothing about their live act is going to change your mind. The crowd was apparently in the first camp, eating up the set even in its more subdued moments.

Deer Tick Site
!!! Site
Bon Iver Site
Mos Def Site
The Decemberists Site

Friday, October 2, 2009

Austin City Limits - Day One

The Low Anthem - the instrumental versatility of the Rhode Island trio kept the energy high, even as their sometimes quiet tunes threatened to be drowned out by surrounding stages. Lead singer and nominal guitarist Ben Knox Miller started the day behind the drum kit and grabbed an alto horn, harmonicas, and even two cell phones to make ethereal distortions at the end of the mournful "This Goddamn House." Jocie Adams provided harmony vocals and played as much clarinet as bass or guitar, while Jeff Prystowsky wore a huge smile the whole time as he switched between drums and upright bass. The music stayed mostly acoustic, but ranged from the very quiet to barnburner standard "Cigareets and Whuskey," which the trio closed with.

Blitzen Trapper - the Portland, Oregon group plays a loose rootsy rock, and was at its best when tightening up a little - they held the crowd in thrall in the gentle, beautiful "Furr," and in the anthemic harmonies of the chorus to "Big Black Bird." They went the other direction in "Love U," letting the sloppiness all hang out in a fun, passionate raunchy romp. A solid set, but not transcendent.

The Avett Brothers - I just caught the end of this set, but was impressed by the harmonies, alternating between sweet rootsy singing and primal yelling. The music largely veered toward the "rock" side of "roots rock," but they hit some gentler notes, as on "January wedding." I'm intrigued enough to check out a more extended performance later.

The Walkmen - I just heard part of their set before heading off to grab food. It seemed pretty generic New York-style indie rock, though the brass section on some songs was a nice touch.

Phoenix - one of the highlights of Friday. They kicked off their set with "Lisztomania," off latest album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and kept the crowd bouncing along with their dancy pop. "This is the biggest crowd we've ever played for," lead singer Thomas Mars announced before just taking a few moments to scan the audience. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, merci beaucoup," he exulted later, as the audience, equally grateful, showered the French band with applause.

K'Naan - the Somalian hip-hop star was really intent on communicating his message from the smaller Wildflower Center Stage - he performed an a cappella version of "Somalia" "so [you] can hear the words." After his quieter numbers, he thanked the audience for listening. It wasn't all low-key material; his boisterous "T.IA." had the audience pumping their fists. His first song, a reggae-tinged number, he wrote less than an hour before going on stage. K'Naan said he felt he had to do it to communicate how far he had come. The audience definitely picked up on his vibe, and I was sorry to have to leave before the end of his set.

Them Crooked Vultures - the much-awaited power trio of Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) was just as rocking as you might imagine. Homme's casual vocal delivery served as strong counterpoint to his harsh guitar lines, Jones' snaky bass, and Grohl's fierce drumming. "Muscular" is the word that springs to mind; there wasn't a sissy note in the set. After a while it was difficult to tell the difference between the songs, but no doubt that was partially unfamiliarity with the material - this was only the group's second U.S. performance.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - for all the theatrics - lead singer Karen O came out for the encore covered in a full body suit and the group played with a giant eye behind them - the set was a flat. They rescued things a little towards the end, when Karen O jumped into the stands during "Cheated Hearts" and then followed it with a passionate rendition of "Maps" over Nick Zinner's quiet acoustic guitar, but a bit of a letdown from a band with a strong live reputation.

Low Anthem Site
Blitzen Trapper Site
The Avett Brothers Site
The Walkmen Site
Phoenix Site
K'Naan Site
Them Crooked Vultures Site
Yeah Yeah Yeahs Site

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Live Review - 9/27/09 Mindwalk Blvd Release Party at Hard Rock Cafe

Mindwalk Blvd, a power trio from the northern suburbs of Boston, played in the Hard Rock Cafe's Cavern Club in Boston's Fanueil Hall to celebrate the release of their The Art Crime EP. The group, consisting entirely of teenagers, gave a dense and extended set to their fans. Their heavy, dense sound and energy lent itself well to a live environment.

Eratoxica followed, continuing the high energy and hard sound that Mindwalk Blvd led with. Singer Bethanie boasts a great voice and really belted out mostly originals with a few covers.

The sound quality was good in the Cavern Club, with high volume and resounding bass. Not the kind of place to go if you want to have a nice dinnertime conversation.

Mindwalk Blvd Site
Eratoxica Site

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Movie Review - Honky Tonk Blues

Honky Tonk Blues is a documentary PBS made about country music giant Hank Williams in 2004 as part of their "American Masters" series. Compared to the recent excellent documentaries on country musicians Townes Van Zandt (Be Here To Love Me) and Gram Parsons (Fallen Angel), it suffers from how long ago many of the events happened. Many experiences are told second-hand (by Williams biographers or his kids, very young at the time of his death), and at the film's conclusion I was intrigued by the enigmatic Hank, but hardly more illuminated. The music was great, as one might expect, but it was largely recorded material, with few hidden gems.

All-in-all, a great introduction for those who don't know much of Williams' life and work (and I would put myself in that category), but not a ton of meat for those who are serious fans.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rating System

You may notice I gave The Dead Weather's Horehound a B. Rating anything, especially art, is subjective and probably stupid. If I like something, but Pitchfork doesn't, or Robert Christgau does, or Metacritic doesn't ... does that tell you if you're going to like it?

So my rankings are going to be totally personal. I'm not going to rate something high if I admire its brilliance but I can't really listen to it. I'm going to listen to each album five or six times before I review it and then rate it on how I'm going to listen to it in the future. I'm going to use the following scale:

A - Will be listening to constantly over the next few weeks, months. Rarely if ever will I skip a track if it comes up on shuffle.
B - I like it, and will listen to it occasionally, but not with the burning compulsion of an A album. Usually not going to skip a track if it comes on shuffle.
C - I like a few songs, but there are some I'm going to skip on shuffle, and I'm not usually going to listen to the album start-to-finish.
D - Skipping most of the disc, even on shuffle. Not listening to the album all the way through.
F - Not synching it to my iPod even though I have 50+ GB free.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Dead Weather - Horehound

Rating: B

I had a high school history teacher who once asked a student in my class to read the definition of concupiscence aloud. "Lust, sexual desire," the student read, rather uncomfortably. "LUST ... SEXUAL DESIRE!" the teacher screamed, jumping in the air, clenching his fists, turning slighly red. It was a more than a little creepy.

That teacher might be proud to know that thanks to his theatrics, I still remember the definition of concupiscence to this day (though, in full disclosure, I did have to look up the spelling). He might also enjoy Horehound, the debut album for The Dead Weather.

Every review of The Dead Weather notes its kind-of-not-really super group status. White Striper Jack White's drumming here, and you might know some of the bands some of the other people are in.

That's not important, not really. What's important is the concupiscence. The lust! - the sexual desire! This album wants to bang you, nail you, rail you. It's going to hurt and you're going to feel dirty, but you're going to like it. "Hang You By the Heavens" follows the line "I want to grab you by the hair" with a second of pregnant, delicious silence until singer Allison Mosshart finishes the line (dragging you to heaven or hell) and the drums and raunchy guitar line kick back in. Her voice and attitude conjure up the kind of raw, crazy sexual beast that Megan Fox is trying so desperately to convince people she is.

Random notes and opinions:
  • Jack's drumming on "New Pony" and the chorus to "So Far From Your Weapon" sounds like Meg's.
  • Album-closer "Will There Be Enough Water?" is the only really blues song on the album.
  • Why is Jack White and not Mosshart singing "I look like a woman" on the somewhat inane "I Cut Like a Buffalo?"
  • It's interesting that they laid down the instrumental track "3 Birds," but honestly I'm probably going to skip it most of the time it comes on.
The lead-off track, "60 Feet Tall," opens with Mosshart quietly emoting, "You're so cruel and shameless / But I can't leave you be." There probably isn't a better way to sum this up.

Buy it from Amazon (MP3 Format)
The Dead Weather Official Website

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Get Well Playlist

I'm sending my Aunt in Houston, recovering from surgery, a mix CD of the following:

1. Antony & the Johnsons - "Shake That Devil"
2. The Shins - "Know Your Onion!"
3. Big Star - "September Gurls"
4. Son Volt - "Windfall"
5. Robert Plant & Allison Krauss - "Killing the Blues"
6. Wilco - "California Stars"
7. Vampire Weekend - "Walcott"
8. Crooked Still - "Shady Grove"
9. Blitzen Trapper - "Furr"
10. The Flaming Lips - "Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Existential Fear"
11. Ryan Adams - "Pearls On a String"
12. Cat Power - "Living Proof"
13. Tim O'Brien - "Forever Young"
14. Bela Fleck - "When Joy Kills Sorrow"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Karaoke Night

Last night I sang Karaoke. I have three rules for successful Karaoke:

  1. Pick a song you genuinely like, but not one you love.
  2. Pick something slightly outside your vocal range.
  3. Sing with absolutely no self-respect or self-restraint. Ham it up.
These rules have song selection as two-thirds of the Karaoke equation, and I think that's right. Here was the song I chose last night:

That's right - Bryan Adams, "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You."

Friday, September 18, 2009

ACL Lineup

To give a flavor for what's coming, here are the bands I'm planning to hit at ACL:

The Low Anthem
Blitzen Trapper - Furr is one of my favorite albums of the year
Avett Brothers
The Walkmen
Them Crooked Vultures - really excited to see these guys after the reviews of their Lollapalooza show
Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Deer Tick
The Raveonettes
Grizzly Bear
Bon Iver - one of my favorite shows from '08
Mos Def
The Decemberists - I was sick and missed them on their latest tour, but I love The Hazards of Love. Not sure if they're going to play that as they've been doing lately or mix it up a bit.

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears
The B-52s
Heartless Bastards
Passion Pit
The Dead Weather - this will be my first album review!
Girl Talk
Pearl Jam


I'm Dave. I love music. This blog exists to chart my musical journey.

On the immediate horizon:
I'm going to Austin City Limits at the beginning of October. Leading up to this, I'm going to listen to and review albums by bands that I'm planning to see there. Review style will likely be in flux until I figure out what I want to do. Suggestions are of course welcome!