Aug 252008

Intro: One note of correction in last week’s column – It’s Beck, the word-inventing psych-rock powerhouse, and not Jeff Beck, the former guitarist for the Yardbirds, that is playing at Bumbershoot. You have my sleep-deprived auto-pilot typing to blame for that and a comment from reader “Zoygo” to thank for the correction.

Listening: Honestly, the few days since last week’s column have been pretty hectic at work. That means that most of my music listening has been Pandora. I’ve found that there’s certainly an art to creating a good Pandora station, and that Pandora doesn’t always seem the commonality between songs that I do. For instance, I had made a station that included Rilo-Kiley, Mary-Lou Lord, Janis Joplin, and a few other acts featuring strong folk influences and female vocalists. Well apparently one of the tags in the Music Genome Project (which Pandora uses to find “similar” songs) is “offensive lyrics”. That made for some interesting and diverse listening. Any station that sandwiches “Some Jingle Jangle Morning (When I’m Straight)” between Amy Winehouse and Rodney Carrington has to be interesting.

When I haven’t been plugged into the wonderfully random loop that is Pandora, I’ve been listening to a lot of Harvey Danger. Not much to say there, other than that if you like good music and/or clever lyrics, then you owe it to yourself to own King James Version.

Upcoming: Honestly, I’ve had my head in the sand a little too much to notice any exciting new upcoming releases. Upcoming on this space you can look forward to a review of the Oasis and Ryan Adams show that I’ll be hitting up tomorrow night, as well as one or two exciting developments that I’m in the final stages of working out. oooOOOOooo, mysterious! And hopefully awesome.

News: Nothing very interesting I’m afraid. I’ve seen a few of the raggier music news sources going on about the thing between Joel Madden (of Good Charlotte) and Mary-Kate Olsen (of…uh, actually what has she done? She’s been in some movies, right?).

On the more interesting side, a sheriff’s deputy drew his sidearm during a stop of a certain Mr. Diddy. Sir McCartney is going to play Israel for the first time since this band he used to be in (the Beatles or someone) got banned.

Also, Rock is apparently kind of political sometimes. Who knew?

Thinking: Not much of anything, actually. One music-related thought did manage to flit under the radar and poke it’s head up in amongst all the work that’s been crowding my brain, however. Isn’t the notion of an “underrated” song or album sort of a funny one? I mean, for all the noise in modern times to the effect that there’s no objectively good music, it seems funny that we’d be sort of okay with the notion that a song might be rated more poorly than it deserves. It seems to be inherently dissonant to both say that “good music” and “music that I like” are synonymous phrases and to allow for the idea that people don’t laud a song as highly as it deserves.

And yet it’s become (in many circles) anathema to say that some music is objectively better (or more valuable or better crafted or possessing of more artistic merit etc.) than other music. By this reasoning, the “Hokey Pokey” could be considered every bit the equal of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. And yet we hear all the time that a particular song or album is “underrated”. (It bears noting that a parallel argument can be made for things that are considered “overrated”).

Thoughts? Can songs really be “under-” or “overrated”? Is (heaven forfend!) musical value really just a measure of how much we like whatever it is we’re listening two? Is it at all possible that both are the case, or am I right in thinking that to concede both leads to some sort of contradiction?

Song of the Week: This popped up on my Pandora the other day and I’d forgotten how much I love this song. They apparently surgically removed the singer’s accent in post-production, since he sounds a lot less Australian on the album version. Which is sort of unfortunate, since this live version is kind of amazing. Here’s Thirsty Merc performing “I Wish Somebody Would Build a Bridge (So I Can Get Over Myself)”, live at the Dusty Days Festival in the wonderfully named Wagga Wagga, Australia:

Aug 212008

Intro: Sorry it’s late again this week, folks. In future weeks, I’ll try to get these up on the Monday prior so that Wednesday meetings don’t futz with the schedule. I’m going to try and front-load the happier stuff before I get to the sad passing of Ronnie Drew. Let’s get to it, shall we?

Listening: Okay, so why have I been listening to Weezer’s “Heartsongs” all week? Can someone please tell me? Once you get past the musical in-jokes, it’s almost everything I dislike about Rivers Cuomo’s songwriting rolled into one package. It’s self-gratifying, the rhymes are forced, and the message is so heavy-handed that I’m pretty sure it’s leaving bruises. But that acoustic guitar hook, the vocal rhythms, and the snappy syncopation in the drums… It just gets under my skin. It’s the very definition of a love-hate song relationship.

Upcoming: As I mentioned last week, this next Tuesday is going to be old home week with new albums from Blues Traveler, BB King, Slipknot and a bunch of other venerable names. There’s also a Michael Jackson compilation entitled King of Pop coming out soon. I question the title, but it’s there if anyone wants it. Early September sees releases by Joan Baez, Okkervil River, Jessica Simpson, Joan Osbourne, and Gym Class Heroes.

If none of those artists ring your bell, you could always catch one of your favorite bands on tour. Fall is the prime time for tours, and many top acts are making the rounds. Conor Oberst is doing a world tour, but seems to be shafting us Yankees: what few shows he’s playing Stateside are mostly in the South. Wilco are doing shows around the country including one tonight (Thursday, 2008.8.21) here in Spokane. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to go. I can’t really justify spending any more funds for concerts this month (I’ll be making two trips to Seattle and back for shows by this time next month.) A super lame excuse, I know, but fear not: rumor has it that my good friends Ann and Paul will be going and while they don’t know it yet, I hope to harass one or both of them to writing something up about the show. I also hope to get them to kidnap Jeff Tweedy for me so that I can make him sing “Hummingbird” on command, but that might be aiming a bit high.

The inimitable Beck is also out on the loose this fall, and he’s playing the Bumbershoot festival on the 30th. Speaking of which: Bumbershoot. If you can make it, go. It’s an awesome festival and the lineup this year is tops. Again, I suck and won’t be able to make it (I’ll be working so that I can take part of that week off for my buddy Matt’s wedding), but despite my absence it’s still gonna be a great show.

News: So Ronnie Drew passed away this last week. He was easily one of the most powerful influences in music in the past 100 years. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Irish folk and Irish-influenced music is successful today because of Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners. But more than that, he was simply a brilliant musician and an amazing singer and songwriter. Requiescat in pace.

Here he is, singing “In the Rare Old Times”. Sorry for the random documentary-ish bit at the end, but this is the only version of this song I could find, and it’s too good not to share:

Thinking: There’s an interesting article in this month’s Under the Radar about political music. The article itself is actually kind of unimpressive, but it features pictures of various artists holding up signs with slogans painted on them. It’s amazing how much you can tell about an artist’s songwriting by seeing what they come up with when present with nothing but a blank piece of poster board and some grease paint. The sentiments range from simple cliches to stunningly succinct and evocative commentary. (They even pass by the [I think] unintentionally ironic with the very Caucasian Britt Daniel of Spoon holding up a sign which reads “Viva La Raza!”)

My personal favorite shot, however, is Michael Stipe calmly staring down the camera, holding a sign which reads “gutless Puff Adder Journalists”. Say what you will about Stipe, the man has a way with words. Close seconds are Wayne Coyne, hamming it up for the camera and showing off his “JUST BE A NICE PERSON wayne” sign and Fleet Foxes’ sign, which reads “CAPITALISM I$ UNETHICAL (AND WE’RE HYPOCRITES)”.

Compare those to the stale “END THIS WAR NOW” (Sharon Jones), “WAR IS OVERRATED” (St. Vincent), and “USE YOUR VOTE” (Elbow). (This is not to mention My Morning Jacket’s sign, which reads “Lack of Funding for the Arts/Art Education” and includes a drawing of a crocodile. Needless to say, even WITH the crocodile, it’s not even a complete sentence, much less a compelling political statement.)

Now, all these are fine and good sentiments and are important to express. But the point behind political music is not simply to state a platform or an ideal. If it were, we could put policy papers to a back beat and they’d be the best political songs ever. This points to one of the key things which separates great political tunes from boring, heavy-handed drivel. “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)” was a brilliant protest song, because it ultimately was a catchy tune, with powerful ideas expressed in an intellectually and emotionally engaging fashion. In this same way, “Gutless Puff Adder Journalists” is effective political sloganeering because it’s not simply a statement of opinion. It definitely does that, but first and foremost it’s engaging.

At any rate, the article’s got me thinking about what it is that separates good political and protest music, from bad. Just why, for instance, Jarvis Cocker’s “Cunts Are Still Running the World” can be a seeming recipe for bad protest rock, and yet still turn out to be brilliant. A big part of it, certainly, is that message is not enough. It has to engage people on a level other than the political, in order for it to even work on the political level at all. That’s why “Cunts Are Still Running the World” works. It’s a clear statement, but the song itself also makes great use of Jarvis Cocker’s wonderfully snarky wit. This need for engagement beyond the politics is why, for example, “Ain’t No Rag” (Charlie Daniels) is eye-rollingly cliche crap and “Hoist That Rag” (Tom Waits) is an effective, thought-provoking political analogy.

That much, I think, is clear. But beyond that I’m at a bit of a loss for what separates great political satire and commentary from dreck. Though a lot of protest tunes are subtle, subtlety’s not enough, nor is it really even necessary. Being clever is undoubtedly good, but can be overdone. I’m almost inclined to say that it comes down primarily to lyrical novelty and resonance. If the way in which the message itself is phrased can either force the listener to think (novelty) and/or connect to some aspect of their experience (resonance) that that’s a huge first step.

I think this week’s Song of the Week is a good indication of that. It’s not subtle, nor particularly clever. Its use of reference to “Waltzing Matilda” is extremely effective, certainly. There’s something very poignant about the national anthem being played repeatedly throughout one man’s horrible experience in service to his country. But all in all, the song’s not particularly deep. And yet, I don’t think there’s a person alive who can be unaffected or unsympathetic when the narrator realizes that “to hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs”.

This is definitely something I’ll have to keep thinking about. I’d be interested in your folks’ thoughts. What makes good political or protest music? Which tunes would land in your Top 5 political or protest songs and why? On the flipside: which are the worst and what makes them suck?

Song of the Week: To close out, here’s one more in memory of Ronnie Drew. This is “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” I first heard Drew’s version of it almost a decade ago and to this day it breaks my heart every time I listen to it. Tonight more than most:

Goodbye, Mr. Drew, and thank you.

Aug 062008

Tuesday Playlist for 2008.8.5

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Intro: Okay, well, I’m a little late starting this one (11:53pm), but it’s still Tuesday, so I declare that this still counts as on-time. I’ve got a lot to get through, so I’m just gonna jump right in.

Listening: Well, my progress up through recent musical history’s brought me more or less up to the present. Been listening to some of my favorite 2007/2008 releases (Our Love To Admire FTW!) and even getting around to checking out some new albums and bands to which I’d been meaning to listen.

Speaking of which: why did no one tell me about the Rakes before? Their song “Binary Love” popped up a few times on one of my Pandora stations, so I added it with the hopes of hearing more of their stuff. Well, as so often happens, one thing lead to another and before I knew it, I’d bought Capture / Release and was using it to soundtrack my drive to Helena this last weekend. Honestly, the album isn’t quite as brilliant as I was hoping, but it’s still pretty strong. “Strasbourg”, “22 Grand Job”, and “Work, Work, Work (Pub, Club, Sleep)” are all fun. Also I’m enough of a geek that I’m pretty sure I want “Binary Love” played at my wedding.

I also grabbed The Last Shadow Puppets debut, The Age of the Understatement. It’s more introspective and complex than either Alex Turner or Miles Kane’s previous work. From the lush string parts on “My Mistakes Were Made For You” to the oddly cacophonous vocal counterpoints on “Separate and Ever Deadly” the album’s full of pleasant little aural surprises. I’m not sure what I think of it as a whole quite yet, but I do like it. If you like either complex, novel rock music or are a fan of either Arctic Monkeys or the Rascals, it’s well worth a listen.

I also just picked Conor Oberst’s new self-titled which just came out today. If you haven’t heard the single off it (“Danny Callahan”), it’s available for download here. If you’d prefer to just stream it:

Warning: it’s not exactly a happy tune. It is, however, beautiful and moving. Speaking of the album…

Upcoming: Wow, how did I not know that Oberst’s new release was due out today until I saw it on Amazon’s frontpage? I seriously need some new sources for upcoming release dates. Metacritic is accurate, but woefully incomplete. The Billboard lists are so noisy as to be practically unusable. News sites are, of course, hit or miss, since they all differ in what releases they deem mention-worthy. Where do you folks hear about new releases?

In concert news, Puddle of Mudd are playing Spokane tomorrow (2008.8.6) night, if you’re into that sort of thing. Also, I learn by way of a comment here at the blog that The Shondes are touring this Fall. They’ll be playing several shows over on the coast. (Alas, none here in the Inland Northwest, but that’s nothing new.) If anyone’s interested, I’m seriously considering heading over to catch the Seattle show. Finally, Alt-Country masters Wilco will be playing Spokane on the 21st of this month. They give a GREAT live show, and if I can scrape together the funds, then I’ll definitely be hitting it up.

News: Did you know that Lee Perry is a dirty old man? Neither did I, but his new single “Pum Pum” is pretty much a stoned, dirty old man’s ode to cruising for sex in nightclubs. Wait, why do I say “pretty much”? That’s EXACTLY what it is. It’s also crazy-groovy. The man has a masterful command of the Dub/Raggae side of things.

(Warning: lyrics are not safe for work, beats are not safe for staying still in one’s seat. Download Link. Hat Tip to 3Hive.)

Also, those perpetually catty folks over at PopJustice are right: the new Streets single is pretty disappointing. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s “shite”, as they so eloquently put it, but it’s definitely no “Stay Positive”.

Thinking: So I’m a huge sucker for unique voices. Voices that, after a few listens, anyone could pick out of a audio lineup. Louise Wener, Tom Waites, Robert Smith. I love artists whose voice is entirely their own. It’s a little like hearing an instrument that no one else in the world can play. Paired with a good writing talent (either their own or a partner’s) and the possesors of such voices can turn out some truly brilliant music. (Louise Wener is a great example of that: a fantastic songwriter with the unique voice necessary to really make her songs her own.)

What I think is really interesting is how often these voices wind up either spawning genres or, at least, defying being placed into them. I think that part of the reason that Alt-Country became a big thing is that Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy have such unique voices and musical visions to accompany them. Similarly, I think that the current wave of singer-songwriters is thanks in large part to the unique voices of people like Conor Oberst and Ben Gibbard.

I think that the vocal qualities are one of the key things that shapes a new musical movement or genre. It’s why so many singers in the late 90s sounded like bad Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder impersonators. In a way, their voices were distillations of what the genre was meant to sound like.

Just a thought that’s been rattling around in my brain of late.

Song of the Week: I’ve been going back to this tune over and over again ever since I got the album. This is “Orphans”, by Beck, off of Modern Guilt:

Jul 222008

Tuesday Playlist for 2008.7.22

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Intro: Well, folks, unfortunately going to be a short one tonight. Work, as always, has me slammed and since I’m working with clients in the Eastern time zone, it means an early morning tomorrow. So here’s a condensed Playlist for you which will have to tide you over until next week or until things calm down enough that I can post a little more frequently.

Listening: The past month or so I’ve really just been listening to old favorites. I think that after almost a year of buying and listening heavily to a new album every week I was kind of craving some of the classics. This week it’s mainly been Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia by the Dandy Warhols and a selection of my favorite Cure tracks/albums.

First off, I really have to say that Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia is the most underrated albums of the past decade. I honestly think that it’s musically and satirically brilliant. The opener “Godless” to the closer “The Gospel” and peaking with the much-loved single “Bohemian Like You” it really is a masterful sendup of turn-of-the-millennium hipster culture and modern society as a whole. Add to that that it’s full of absolutely masterful rock tunes and you have one of the best rock albums of the new millennium.

Secondly, the Cure. Top 5 Cure tunes. Anyone want to play? Mine are as follows:

1.) “Lovesong” (This is as much because I associate it with someone very special as anything else, but it is a brilliant tune.)

2.) “Grinding Halt” (The Cure do Punk back when Punk was still important? Yes, please!)

3.) “alt.end” (“There’s a big, bright, beautiful world/Just the other side of the door.” Yeah, I think we can all relate sometimes.)

4.) “The Lovecats” (Maybe I’m just weird like that, but I kind of want this song played at my wedding.)

5.) “Killing an Arab” (The Cure riff on Camus; what’s not to like?)

Upcoming: Haven’t really seen anything exciting coming up. I have, however, heard great things about the Hold Steady, so I may need to grab the album they released last week. Also, I’m still loving Beck’s latest and I’m planning to review it as soon as I get a chance.

Oh, and then there’s the new Paul Westerberg album. I’ve never been a huge Replacements or Paul Westerberg fan (pardon me while I dodge brickbats from the audience), personally, but it’s there if you’re into that kind of thing.

News: The new Paul Westerberg (late of the Replacements) album that I mentioned above is for sale through Amazon for only $.49. That’s right, less than half a dollar. The whole thing’s a bit gimmicky: a single-track album, called 49:00, for sale for $.49, on July 19th (or as the calender-impaired Westerberg claims: June 49th). Inexplicably, Mr. Westerberg shies at the last gate: the monotractual (it’s a word now!) album clocks in at just 43:55.

Also, apparently donuts are now the official currency of Pitchfork Media.

Thinking: Why is everyone surprised that John Lydon’s been implicated in a racist dust-up? This is a man who, along with Sid Vicious and co., defined the public shock-persona. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether John Lydon is or isn’t racist; people are scandalized that Johnny Rotten might be. And really, that’s what matters, I think, as far as Lydon/Rotten is concerned.

Song of the Week: Here’s The Cure’s “Grinding Halt” (off their 1979 debut Three Imaginary Boys) accompanied by an awesome stop-motion video done by youtube user badhill:

Jul 152008

Tuesday Playlist for 2008.7.15

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Intro: Holy Strings of Hendrix! Three on-time columns in a row? That’s unpossible! Ah, dear readers, but it is happening. In today’s Playlist, why Sigue Sigue Sputnik are more awesome than most people give them credit for, thoughts on the newly-announced Bumbershoot lineup, and the best song ever to use the word “flaaahaa”.

Listening: So occasionally I just need synth pop.  In the same way that I drink an occasional glass of scotch or smoke an occasional cigarette, (usually together) I go on occasional synth pop kick.  Earlier this week when I found myself drinking a snifter of Laphroaig and smoking a Djarum, I suddenly felt an overpowering urge to put on Sigue Sigue Sputnik‘s Flaunt It.  It felt somehow fitting.  As if it somehow rounded out a triumvirate of bad vices: alcohol, tobacco, and synth pop.

But are Sigue Sigue Sputnik and the keyboard-and-sample heavy pop music that they helped pioneer really so bad?  I don’t think so.  I mean, sure, it can be a bit goofy at times (I’m looking at you, now, Freezepop), but there’s also something extremely endearing about it.  I mean, the combination of elements of obviously non-organic origins (samples, drum machines, keyboards, etc.) with human vocals and addressing human themes is, in a way, sort of sweet.  To me it’s the act of taking technology and making it our own.  Using man-made tools and applying them to deep human concerns.

…Okay, so synth pop bands do tend to spend a lot of their time singing about robots and space and other non-human things, but even songs like “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles hit at some pretty quintessentially human things.  That they do that largely with what amount recycled and/or artificially produced sounds is pretty impressive to me.

I mean, hell, even “Love Missile F1-11” is about love and care for one’s fellow human beings.  (Or about lust depending on how metaphorically one wants to take the “missile” images in the song.)  But hey: love, compassion, and lust are all extremely human things.

So can Sigue Sigue Sputnik be a little campy sometimes?  Yes.  But is indulging in their unique brand of synth pop ridiculousness going to hurt me?  Nope.  Just as long as I don’t get addicted.

And honestly, I can quit anytime.  .  .  Right after I hear “21st Century Boy” just ONE more time.

Upcoming: A new album by The Hold Steady is out today.  I’ve largely missed them, anyone in the audience a fan?  Is a new album from them something I should be excited about?

Nine Inch Nails’ newest album The Slip comes out next Tuesday on CD.  If you can’t wait that long, it’s been available for digital download for awhile now and it is WELL worth the download.  And it’s free!  Why?  Because Trent Reznor loves each and every one of us.  Or because he hates the record companies.  Or some awesome combination of the two.

Also: did you know that Alice Cooper’s still around?  And that he’s making music?  And that he’s given up drugs and alcohol and taken up religion and golf?  (No, seriously.)  Well he’s got a new album coming out (his 25th!) in a fortnight.  2000’s Brutal Planet and 2001’s Dragontown weren’t bad.  I may have to give the old man a shot.

Also that same week (if you’re not tired of giving them money, yet) the Rolling Stones have a new DVD out.  See, I often joke about rock stars saying “wait, shouldn’t they be dead now?” and such but the thing about the Rolling Stones is, they actually all ARE dead.  Those are just clever crafted androids parading around and giving shows and shooting DVDs and such.  Isn’t it amazing how far we’ve come?

News: Well, the new Bumbershoot schedule is finally out and it’s a doozy.  It’s got music, comedy, visual arts, literature, the whole 9 yards.  Unfortunately I’m not going to be able to make it this year (the next few months are going to be crazy and broke for me), but those who do go will be treated to everything from musical headlines Beck, The Stone Temple Pilots, and Death Cab for Cutie to science fiction luminary William Gibson.  If you can go, do so.  It’s August 30th through September 1st in Seattle and it’s going to be fanastic.

Thinking: Honestly, I haven’t had much time to think about anything but work lately.  And while at work I do try to listen to music.  Favorite work soundtracking by far is electronic dance stuff, mostly trance and drum-and-bass.  It also helps that I have headphones with both great sound quality and excellent noise attenuation.  This is doubly so, since I work in a small office with five other people.

Basically your thought for the week is “trance + headphones = good work music.”  I’ll have something deeper and more interesting next week, I promise.

Song of the Week: Ever since Ann reminded me that Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry did a cover of “Hey Jude” I’ve been listening to that and to Hugh Laurie’s “The Sophisticated Song” on pretty heavy repeat.  So here for the song of the week is my favorite Hugh Laurie tune and one of my favorite songs of all time:

Video: Hugh Laurie performs “The Sophisticated Song”
Jul 102008

“Look it up in the Becktionary.”

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OH man.  Beck’s latest album, Modern Guilt, is a dozen kinds of awesome.  Check out the opening track “Orphans” over on iLike.  Groovy, mumbly goodness says I.

And the rest of the album is equally fun.  Probably a review coming at some point, once I get some time to sit down at a computer for purposes other than work and thesis.