Mar 052009

Intro: Sorry for missing last week and being late this week.  Blame me if you must, but I blame a particular East-Coast customer (which shall remain nameless) which spent a couple weeks waking me up early and keeping me at the office late. . . . Also Guitar Hero III, to which I’ve recently become fiercly re-addicted.

Listening: So the new M. Ward album is crazy good.  Especially “Epistemology” and “Stars of Leo”, which have been on permanent repeat (from here forward to be termed “permapeat” because it amuses me) for the better part of a week.  It’s the same sort of understated, bluesy folk that I loved on Transfiguration of Vincent.  I would say that this latest album, Hold Time, plays up the religious things and takes a corresponding musical swing towards a vaguely gospel sound, which actually work quite well.  (For this, see especially “Epistemology”.)

Other than that, I’ve been listening to my Dropkick Murphys albums.  The show I went to Saturday kick-started my old love of the Murphys something fierce, and Sing Loud, Sing Proud! and The Meanest of Times have spent quite a bit of time in my CD player since then.  I will say, I think Sing Loud… is by far my favorite of their albums.  It’s consistent without being homogenous and it’s unrelentingly energetic and fun.

Upcoming: New Neko Case album out today, which I’ve just now purchased.  I’m pretty stoked about it.  I’m a huge fan of Neko Case, and I’m excited to see how Middle Cyclone lives up to the awesome precendent set by Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.

Next week must be “Talent Deficiency Awareness Week”, as there are new releases from Kelly Clarkson, Chris Cornell, and New Found Glory.

Thinking: 1.) It occurs to me that the New Pornographers are probably the best modern example of a Reverse Supergroup.  They’re basically a musical pipebomb of awesome that’s given us solo work from Neko Case, AC Newman, and Dan Bejar.  Not to mention the various collaborations its members have been involved in.

2.) Oh man the Dropkick Murphys show was so good!  Those guys really know how to work a crowd.  They had amazing energy and charisma and were musically brilliant.  They played a good selection of newer and older material, with a few covers thrown in for good measure.  (Of special note was their awesome version of the Kingston Trio’s “MTA”.)

I will say, though, that the highlight of the show was Ken Casey singing “Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced” while trying to navigate a huge throng of adoring female fans that had been brought up on stage.  To his credit he did a great job with it despite (because of?) getting jumped several times during the tune.

The openers I was less impressed with.  The first opener, Civet, were a competent hardcore band, but technical difficulties, lack of stage presence, and fairly unimaginative tunes made their 40-minute set feel like it was about 20-minutes too long.

H2O had more going for them.  They owned the stage a lot more, were more energetic and actually had a sound that was distinguishably their own.

3.) The new Showbox venue is really nice.  Plenty of space, good acoustics, and a well-positioned stage.  The bar (to which I retired a few times to rehydrate) has a limited view and muffled accoustics due to a separating wall, but the main floor is awesome.

News: Comb your mullet and wax your Camaro, Faith No More are getting back together!  Win Butler of Arcade Fire and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips are having a bit of a pissing match.  I’d go on, but I think that last sentence just ODed me on ego for the week.

Song of the Week: Here’s the title track and debut single off Hold Time, by M. Ward:

Not my favorite track off the album, but still pretty damned awesome.  Also, kudos to Merge Records for allowing embedding on their official YouTube channel!

Feb 172009

Tuesday Playlist for 2008.2.17

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Intro: This week’s column may be a bit monotonic since the music part of my brain is completely stuffed full of a potent combination of Power+Light and Sasquatch! Festival excitement.  That being said, I’ll probably also mention the new Morrissey album, though only in passing.

But enough of the preview…

Listening: So, I got the new Morrissey album, Years of Refusal in .mp3 download format.  (Which, BTW, is on sale today at Amazon.com for just $4.  Helluva deal, that.)  It came out a day later than the CD, so I only just got it today and haven’t had much of a chance to listen to it yet.  What I’ve heard, though, I like a great deal.

Other than that, I’ve still been totally digging on Power+Light.  It’s embarrassing how addicted I am to it.  I listen to music about eight to ten hours a day, and for the past two weeks not a day has gone by where half of that time or more is devoted to that EP.  It’s crazy good.  If you haven’t heard it yet, PLEASE go give it a listen.

Oh, and I also grabbed the new M. Ward album today, but I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet.

Upcoming: As mentioned above, Morrissey and M Ward have new albums out today.  In the next few weeks, look forward to new material from JJ Cale, Hatebreed, U2, and Neko Case.  (Random aside: the Neko Case, Middle Cyclone, sports some of my favorite album art in a long time.)

Thinking: 1.) In bands whose name is [Definite Article] [Noun], should the definite article be capitalized?  Should it be (e.g.) the Rakes or The Rakes?

2.) Sasquatch Festival!  As I’ll expound below, the lineup’s been announced and I am crazy stoked.  I’ve already started plotting with my good friend and long-time Sasquatch ally Mike, and the concensus is that this year’s festival is going to be a month’s worth of awesome crammed into a 3-day weekend.

News: The Sasquatch! Festival lineup has been announced!  Or at least according to the super-awesome unofficial Sasquatch Festival blog.  The main Sasquatch site for 2009 isn’t up yet, but I imagine it will be within the next day or two.  I’m extremely stoked about the fact that this year will see the return of Nine Inch Nails, The Decemberists, TV on the Radio, Calexico, and others.  Among the fresh new faces that I’m happy to see are A. A. Bondy, Silversun Pickups, Gogol Bordello, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

It should be noted that every place carrying the lineup also carries the wording “…and more to come” or equivalent, so there’s strong potential for even more awesome.  (Rumors abound that Sasquatch veterans Death Cab for Cutie and The Shins might added to the lineup.)

Tickets will be sold in the tiered pricing scheme of previous years, with cheap (~$155) 3-day passes going on sale the weekend of the 28th and prices going up from there.  It should be noted that these cheapest tickets will be on sale for ONE WEEKEND ONLY.  So if you want to save at least $40 on three days of Sasquatch awesomeness, then I strongly encourage you to get them then.

If anyone’s planning to attend and wants to meet up, drop me a line in comments.

Song of the Week: One of the many Josh Ritter songs I discovered a few weeks ago during my binge was this off of his album The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter.  It’s called “Mind’s Eye” and I think it’s crazy awesome.

Feb 102009

Tuesday Playlist for 2009.2.10

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Intro: I have a lot of fawning and squeeing to do this week, so let’s just get right to it.

Listening: So my entire playlist for the past week has pretty much been 50 Foot Wave’s Power+Light EP and the new Franz Ferdinand album.  The Franz Ferdinand album, well, I want to love it, but so far it’s felt like listening to either of the Scottish rockers’ first two albums: really good at times, yes.  And even what’s not excellent is at least fun, well-crafted, twee-ish rock.  But, see, I’m having a hard time really falling in love with it, because I have a hard time listening to it all the way through at the moment.

That’s largely because I have a hard time going an hour without listening to Power+Light.  I seriously think I need an intervention.  It’s brilliant.  I think it’s the best thing that 50 Foot Wave have done.  It’s grunge-y, noisy rock music not just done right, but done sublimely.  It’s 26 minutes of well-structured, energetic cacophony.

And the icy on this dark, fuzzy cake of rock awesome?  The band is streaming the whole thing right now, for free.  Go click on that link.  Now.  Go do it.  Listen.  This is what Noise Rock should sound like.  Kristin Hersh’s caterwaul vocals, Victor Laurence’s haunting cello, Bernard Georges’ thundering bass, and Rob Ahlers’ drum work (at times clockwork-precise and at others blistering and messy) combine to make a truly epic and truly genius piece of work.  It’s music like this that made me stop rating things on a zero-to-ten scale.  Because this is an eleven with a bullet and a bag of broken glass and a guitar cabinet with pencils jammed in it, Link-Wray-style.  Which I guess is my way of saying that it defies rating, but suffice it to say: it’s good.

Seriously, folks: Go. Listen.

I may have more thoughts about Franz Ferdinand next week, if Power+Light sees fit to release me for long enough to listen to it.  We’ll see.

Upcoming: Well, there’s that new Moz album coming out next week, which is cool.  For those of you who like your band names unecessarily long and emo, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead are coming out with a new album next week.  M. Ward and Architecture in Helsinki will also be coming out with albums next Tuesday, which excites me.

Beyond that, it looks like it’ll be March before anything else intriguing comes out.  The first week in March will see new material from Neko Case and U2.

Thinking: So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the CDs lately.  I almost never buy CDs anymore.  Only if an album really grabs me or I want to give one as a gift do I buy a CD.  Instead, all my music gets purchased through various digital music retailers (mostly Amazon.)  And until recently, I’ve been pretty sure that CDs would go the way of casettes (as opposed to the way of LPs, which are still around and still being pressed by contemporary artists.)  But it occurs to me that there will probably always be SOME market for nicely-packaged, physical instantiations of a particular album.

One reason for this is one I mentioned above: gifts.  While it’s all good and well to give a person an iTunes gift card, but it’s a more powerful gesture to lay in their hands an album that you want them to hear and to have.  And let’s face it, my hand-writing sucks and my home-made copies of albums always look tacky (even when I try to do them up fancy, which is rare.)  I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

Another reason is an analogous one to what’s kept LPs around so long: collectors.  Many people like having a physical record of their music collection.  True-fans will definitely pay more for limited-run tokens of their favorite band, and will shell out extra money for well-designed, well-made physical media.  A perfect example of this is Trent Reznor’s success with Ghosts I-IV.  Some of it was available for free (9 of 36 tracks) by digital download.  The whole album was available for download cheap ($5).  On CDs for a little more ($10).  A deluxe edition with a DVD, CDs, downloads, and some other extras was available for about what a good box set costs ($75).  And then there was the limited run of 2500 Ultra-Deluxe edition packages which sold for $300 each.  Those Ultra-Deluxe editions sold out.  $300 x 2500 = $750,000.

Collectors will pay more for nice physical goods.

So now that I’ve done some thinking, I think it will, at the very least, be a long while before we see the end of CDs.  And when we do it won’t be because the Internet music revolution killed them, but because we’ve found a better form of physical music media.

News: Right, well no lineup yet, but at least we have a date for the lineup announcement.  Courtesy of the Sasquatch Music Festival blog:

“Memorial Day Weekend | May 23, 24, 25, 2009
The Gorge | Quincy, WA

Line-up to be announced Tuesday, February 17”

So, you can probably guess what next week’s column will be all about: squeeing over the Sasquatch lineup.

In other news there, uh, really wasn’t much other news, other than the Rihanna allegedly getting abused by her thug of a boyfriend.  Not a fan of her music, but still, here’s wishing her a speedy recovery.

Song of the Week: At the risk of sounding sycophantic or redundant, 50 Foot Wave, Power+LightGo Listen.

Aug 162007

"Wail like an infant atop a white baby grand"

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The wonderfully inimitable Ann had informed me that Bright Eyes is going to be playing my humble city of Spokane, WA on the 15th. If you’re in or around the area, it should be an awesome show. If even half the talent (e.g. Gillian Welch, Mike Mogis, Nate Wolcott, M. Ward, et al. ) that Conor Oberst collected with him on Cassadaga hits the road with him, then those live shows are going to kick prodigious amounts of ass.

Jul 312007

Quite well, Mr. Johnston, thanks for asking. How are you?

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As an update to the whole M. Ward / Mastercard kerfuffle:

Pitchfork Media heard from a reader who claims to have talked to the brother of the original artist who supposedly said that Danial Johnston was, in fact, compensated for the use of the song.

So assuming that’s true, good job Mastercard. Assuming that we can trust Pitchfork’s relaying of a message from a reader who allegedly contacted the brother of the artist. I, for one, am taking this with a hopeful grain of salt.

In other news, Daniel Johnston’s website totally wins the award for “Most Charming URL EVAR”: http://hihowareyou.com/

Jul 302007

An interesting post recently popped up on M. Ward’s MySpace blog. Mr. Ward, never one to mince words, states the situation quite matter-of-factly.

Mastercard was denied permission by M. Ward to use his version of Daniel Johnston’s “TO GO HOME” – so Mastercard found some anonymous musicians to re-record the song. Neither M. Ward nor the musicians that appeared on his version have any involvement in this recording or the commercial.

This, to me, seems like a reasonable, level-headed way to handle the situation. Mr. Ward wanted to set the record straight, and he did so simply, cleanly and professionally. Kudos to him.

Then Pitchfork Media got ahold of the post. The result? Apparently the above comment “points to the possibility of a Waits-ian battle brewing between the Merge songwriter and MasterCard.” What, Mastercard’s asshattery wasn’t enough of a story, they had to go and read a pending legal battle into the post, too? I mean, hell, even the title of the article, “M. Ward Digs at Mastercard” is inaccurate. I mean, I’m sure Mr. Ward is pissed (and with pretty good reason), but the above hardly counts as a dig. M. Ward wasn’t throwing down a gauntlet, he was making clear his role (or more particularly, lack thereof) in the proceedings.

But the Pitchfork noise squad seems to be so far gone that they don’t even understand professionalism when it’s rubbed in their smarmy little faces. Basically M. Ward displays great professionalism in letting his fans know what was up with the commercial in question and, when filtered through Pitchfork-o-vision, that became the first rumblings of a legal battle royale. No doubt they have visions of Thom Yorke sweeping in on vinyl wings weilding a flaming guitar to smite the evil-doing Mastercard . . .

Kudos to M. Ward for setting the record straight and being his level-headed and groovy self. (A bit of a plug, M. Ward is on the road overseas at the moment, so if any of you are reading this from the far side of the Atlantic Pond, you should check out one of his shows. He gives a great live performance.)

Apr 162007

Bright Eyes, Cassadaga

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Artist: Bright Eyes
Album: Cassadaga
Label: Saddle Creek Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.4.10
Score: 8/10

Cassadaga is a fairly significant turn for Bright Eyes in several ways. It marks a distinctive shift in the group’s sound (comparable in scope to that heard on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) towards the Country / Western / Alt Country area of the musical spectra. And for lyricist / songwriter Conor Oberst, it displays a level of political and social awareness not present in previous efforts. And like all new paths, this one starts out with some noticeable rough spots. The political commentary is occasionally shallow or reductionist, the country twang is occasionally done up a little too much, the intense self-reflection and self-reference (hallmarks of most of Bright Eyes’ work) occasionally takes a turn for the decidedly pretentious.

The net result, however, is a moving, often charming, and intensely personal look at the world. The tone of the album is at turns introspective, narrative, and observational, giving a sense (present in a great deal of the rest of Bright Eyes’ corpus) that the band really is a mouthpiece for Oberst’s view of the world. And while how autobiographical the album is remains an open question, it certainly has a biographical feel to it. This intensely personal tone (as well as several of the lyrical and musical themes of the album) is set early with the single, “Four Winds.” This rocking, alt-country track serves as a far more fitting opening to the album than the plodding, introspective, “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed).” “Four Winds” manages to neatly wrap most of the important facets of the album in one track, which makes it the ideal single. Religious and social commentary (“The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Koran is mute”) mix with personal reflection and a recurring theme of wandering and a search for truth. And with a intensely rhythmic, heavily country-influenced sound, the song also gives the listener a musical sense of what to expect in the rest of the album.

And what the listener has to look forward to is largely positive and quite varied for the extent to which it fits into the orchestral Country feel to which the band commits. This is hardly a surprise given the diverse cast of talented musicians Oberst has managed to collect. Notables include M. Ward, Gillian Welsh (along with long-time associate, guitarist David Rawlings), Ben Kweller, Jason Boesel (of Rilo Kiley fame), and Janet Weiss (formerly of Sleater Kinney). The result of this collaboration is a rich musical complexity that not only makes for a pleasant, interesting listening experience, but means that Cassadaga rewards repeat listening with the kind of depth that always turns up new musical tidbits.

One track which epitomizes this musical depth is the deceptively simple-sounding “Classic Cars.” At first, this introspective character sketch sounds to be a fairly typical and unnoteworthy alt-country combination of vocal-driven melodies supported by guitar-heavy harmonies. But beyond Jason Boesel’s varied, interesting, and almost-unpatterned drumming and the excellent guitar lines laid down by Mike Mogis and David Rawlings, there’s some excellent piano work (courtesy of Nate Walcott) and Gillian Welsh’s smooth, unwavering alto singing backup. The net effect is a rich, interesting track that begs to be put on repeat.

But the boons brought by this impressive musical cast aren’t limited to one or two tracks, but rather heard all over the album. The dark, orchestrally percussive “Middleman” features catchy, bluegrass-inspired guitar hooks and some incredibly groovy work by a sizeable percussion section. “No One Would Riot for Less” builds slowly from a simple accoustic guitar melody (which would sound right at home on any of Bright Eyes’ early albums) to a cathartic major turn accompanied by orchestral harmonies, organ, and lap steel guitar. The wonderfully-named “Soul Singer in the Session Band” features superb vocal and guitar work from bluesman M. Ward in support of Oberst’s lyrical, moaning voice.

Lyrically speaking, this album is paradoxically both one of the most self-referential and yet most socially aware Bright Eyes album to date. While most of the songs are couched in an autobiographical mood, Oberst finds time to take jabs at the political and social structures. And while I’m always skeptical of such commentary in music (it’s easy to do, but incredibly hard to do well), Oberst does manage it without too much melodrama or pretension. Admittedly, there are some cringe-worthy lines, but I can forgive a contrived reference to “democracy’s shackled hands” in light of the more subtle (“Get your revolution at a lower price”) and better developed (the social and religious jabs in “Four Winds”).

When one comes right down to it, the album is kind of a “one for the fans” affair. For all its new Country trappings, Bright Eyes is much the same as it’s always been: a group of talented musicians serving largely as a mouthpiece for frontman Conor Oberst. There are a lot of musical bits of stylistic nostalgia harkening back to previous albums (“Coat Check Dream Song” is syncopated and synth-y enough that it could easily have been a Digital Ash in a Digital Urn b-side) and many of Oberst’s favorite lyrical memes crop up throughout. As a result, if you like Bright Eyes, you’re probably going to dig Cassadaga. If, on the other hand, Conor Oberst and his troupe rub you the wrong way, then the occasional pretension and consistent self-reference will probably get old pretty quickly. That being said, this album is far more interesting from a strictly musical point of view than previous Bright Eyes releases. The scoring and song-writing is more complex and the resulting sound is rich and engaging, with the kind of depth that is likely to keep listeners coming back for more.

Apr 012007

Artist: Bright Eyes
Album: Four Winds EP
Label: Saddle Creek
Score: 9/10

For some reason, whenever I hear that Conor Oberst is releasing another Bright Eyes album, I’m always vaguely worried. Part of me is always worried that I’ll pick it up only to hear that Mr. Oberst has finally gone one album too far and catapulted himself off into the kind of melodramatic musical pretension that his music always seems to threaten, but (thankfully) usually manages to avoid. So it was when I heard that his new album Cassadaga would be coming out in April.

I was quite pleased, then, when I first heard the album single, the lyrical, country-tinged “Four Winds” and saw the top-talent line up for the album. I was also extremely pleased to see that they were releasing an EP to accompany the single. So, I dug a few virtual dollars out of my virtual wallet and ordered the Four Winds EP off Amazon, and ever since it’s arrived it’s been in fairly heavy rotation.

The EP has a little something for every kind of Bright Eyes fan. Were you a Lifted… fan? There’s the dark, rambling “Cartoon Blues”. More of a I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning kid? Try the Conor Oberst/M. Ward duet “Smoke Without Fire”. Did you did the more modern sound of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn? Check out “Reinvent the Wheel”. Whatever it is you’ve liked about Conor Oberst and his variety of musical friends, there’s at least one track on the EP that will give you your particular Bright Eyes fix.

What’s more, though, you’ll also get something a little new. “Tourist Trap”, for example, has the fuzzy, plodding, Folk-Blues sound one usually attributes more to M. Ward or Sam Beam. More telling, however, is the focus of the single EP: “Four Winds”.

[soapbox]I will say, “Four Winds” is one of those songs that is going to inspire a lot of irritation for me. Not because of the song itself, but because of how a lot of people are going to want to read into it. It has the epic sound and heavily referential style that always seems to bring out the pop exegete in listeners. And while there are many people whose opinions on the song I’m actually quite eager to hear, there’s going to be a lot more interpretations of it that are going to make me want to bash the speaker in the head with the nearest blunt object. In support for this theory: a link to the SongMeanings.com entry for the song. Of course, SongMeanings.com fosters this kind of lame-brained hyper-intepretive effect all its own, but with a song as rich and referential as this, some people definitely go nuts with it. I particularly like the “This song is calling for an end to civilization, YEAH REVOLUTION” meme that one of the commenters reads into it.[/soapbox]

The song is, though, kind of Eliot-esque in the way it uses references. That is to say, it’s not simply the seamless integration of allusions in the music, but rather the use of such allusions in a creative and productive way. The few references to Yeats’ “The Second Coming” are particular nice, with such unique appropriations as “hold us at the center while the spiral unwinds”. Similarly the biblical references, especially to the book of Revelations, the religious community of Cassadaga, and others. Of course the sheer concentration of allusion doesn’t reach Eliot strength, but it’s at least a few hundred milli-Eliots.

What makes song notably new, however, is not simply its allusion-heavy lyrical style, but its heavy country influence, its explicitly religious overtones, and a sense of social commentary which Oberst has, historically, avoided (at least until his two 2005 releases, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, in which socio-political commentary was a more evident theme.)

It’s always a toss-up whether or not a single will be qualitatively or stylistically representative of album from which it’s drawn, but in the case of “Four Winds”, I would certainly be happy to hear an album full of the kind of quality musicianship and songwriting evident on “Four Winds” and on the EP as a whole. And while it would be quite easy to overdo the swaying, plaintive Country sound and thick allusions heard in “Four Winds”, there seems to be no indication of that happening, if single really is an example of what we should expect from Cassadaga when it drops on April 10th (meaning, incidently, that you’ll have a chance to vote for a review it next week, if you’re so inclined).

So I think it’s pretty safe to say that my pre-Bright-Eyes-release worries have been well-assuaged by a proper single EP chock full of a variety of a variety of kinds of Bright Eyes goodness.

Mar 262007

I’d totally missed the fact that the new Bright Eyes single was released a couple of weeks ago. It’s gratifying to see that it’s a real, proper single, with a healthy chunk of B-Side material to make buying it a good idea. In addition to “Four Winds,” the single off of the forth-coming Cassadaga album, it’s got 5 other tracks not found on the album, making it more of a single EP than a conventional American single.

This is something I’ve complained about elsewhere and to many people, but most American record labels and/or bands either don’t know how to craft a good single or simply refuse to do so. I’ll pay 8 bucks for the radio single plus a few other songs that won’t be on the album. I won’t, however, pay that much for the radio single and two shitty remixes thereof.

So props to Conor Oberst and his Saddle Creek Records label for putting out a single record worth buying.

Info here on Cassadaga and the Four Winds single, as well as a few .mp3 dowloads. I highly recommend “Four Winds” and the brilliantly-named “No One Would Riot for Less.”

In other news: The lineup credited on the new album is impressively all-star. Ben Kweller, M. Ward, Janet Weiss, and Jason Boesel, amongst others.