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.

Jan 022008

Happy New Year to all! Hope 2007 was a great year for all of you and that 2008 is even better.

Things here are off to a fresh start after a bit of a hiatus with my review of the new disc of home-recordings by Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and some new voting options. Next week I’ll have a review for you all of the Leonard Cohen/Philip Glass collaboration, The Book of Longing, so stay tuned for that. This week I’ll also be doing some 2007 best-ofs so if you’re the kind of person who likes year-retrospectives and/or lists, this is your luck week.

In the meantime, however, we have voting. Continuing to slog through the winter album doldrums, there aren’t many options this week, but they’re all promising ones. So check out links (all links this week go to the band’s myspace page), listen to some tunes, and get your democracy on.

Marah, Angels of Destruction! (LINK)
Kate Nash, Made Of Bricks (LINK)
Sia, Some People Have Real Problems (LINK)
The Shondes, The Red Sea (LINK)

Jan 022008

Rivers Cuomo, Alone

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Artist: Rivers Cuomo
Album: Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo
Label: Geffen Records
Release Date:
Score: 5/10

The very astute comedian Patton Oswalt once pointed out that Edgar Allen Poe was only considered a genius because he wrote prolifically and had occasional strokes of genius. Or, as Oswalt put it, “if you ever have the chance to read Poe’s Complete Works… DON’T”. Unfortunately, Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer fame) seems like he might be edging into similar territory with his recent recording of home demos, Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo.

Alone is, as one would probably imagine from a collection of home-recorded demos, a remarkably mixed bag. It ranges from the clever, melodic “Chess” to the remarkably pretensious few tracks (“Blast Off”, “Dude, We’re Finally Landing”, etc.) taken from space-themed rock opera. And while some of the songs are downright unlistenable (“Superfriend”), others are pretty brilliant. “Longtime Sunshine” was one which particularly grabbed me. It manages to be extremely evocative and sweet despite some awkward vocal rhythms and rough harmony lines.

Largely, though, Alone is the kind of album which will be of interest only to people who are already fans of Cuomo’s work. Even some hardcore Weezer fans might find it a bit hard to get very interested in Alone, since a lot of the material that Cuomo presents is stuff that never made it past the demo stage, I imagine, because they simply weren’t Weezer tunes. The various songs from Cuomo’s rock musical Songs from the Black Hole are prime examples. Not only were they designed to be framed in a format radically different from a Weezer album, but the songs the themselves lack the glib, feel-good punchiness that most people think about when they think of Weezer.

There are, however, a few tunes which will appeal to people who (like almost everyone interested in buying Alone) know Cuomo primarily from his work with Weezer. The demo version of “Buddy Holly” is particularly interesting in that respect, since it presents a well-loved Weezer track (my favorite, actually) in a radically different fashion. The demo version replaces the bouncy pop-punk vibe of the album version with a slower, more bass-heavy aesthetic combined with a shriller, more organ-like sound on the synth lines. It’s a fascinating way to rehear an old favorite.

Other tunes of note on the album are the covers the Cuomo includes. His version of Gregg Alexander’s tune “The World We Love So Much” is simple and haunting, though lacking a lot of the emotional punch that the song has the potential to deliver. This is largely due to the fact that Cuomo’s rasping whispering and screaming seems quite out of place laid over top of the simple acoustic guitar lines. Cuomo seems much more in his element on version of “Little Diane” (originally by Dion and the Belmonts), where, backed by a full and talented band, he manages to sound evocatively vitriolic and tortured, adding a lot of new life to an old classic.

One interesting part of the album is the extensive liner notes that Cuomo provides for each song. The tone of the liner notes is at turns self-important and self-effacing, but gives a good sense both of Cuomo and his relationship to his music and gives some interesting snapshots of his life and work before and throughout the Weezer period.

Alone seems like it was designed to be “one for the fans”: an album put out to give the long-time audience a look at some of the material that Cuomo was recording when he wasn’t in the studio with Weezer. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions it winds up not even being that. Between the oft-pretentious excerpts from Cuomo’s sci-fi rock musical and the early, extremely rough covers and demos, this is probably of more interest to the very narrow audience of Cuomo himself and any potential Rivers Cuomo biographers out there. Admittedly, there are a few tracks that are well worth hearing (namely “Chess”, “Longtime Sunshine”, and the demo version of “Buddy Holly”), but the album seems mostly to be of more value as biography than as music.