Mar 172009

Intro: So I upgraded to the latest WordPress and forgot that, every time I do, it totally borks my sidebar.  It’s fixed, so the Meta menu is back above the catagories where it belongs.  No long, annoying scrolling to get down there to find it.

Listening: This past week I’ve been listening to a random assortment of stuff I picked up but didn’t have the chance to listen to, Pandora, and the radio.  (Did you know they’re still transmitting MUSIC on FM?  ‘Cause it came as a bit of a shock to me.)  The latest A. C. Newman album (Get Guilty) is good, but it’s not as interesting or as consistently brilliant as The Slow Wonder.  It’s a bit more conservative and, while fun, I think it suffers for that by feeling a bit homogeneous.  If you’re already an A. C. Newman fan, then by all means grab a copy.  If you’re not, then start on The Slow Wonder.

Pandora’s recently introduced me to a few new artists that I’m kind of stoked about, including Magneta Lane.  I’ve only heard a few of their tunes, so I can’t really say anything about their work as a whole, but just listen to this song “Broken Plates”.

Is that not incredibly groovy?

Upcoming: Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Satic-X this week. The Rakes, The Decemberists, Pete Doherty, and KMFDM next week.  I take back what I said last week, March has redeemed itself.

Thinking: So this whole “American Idol” thing is happening again.  I have to admit, I’ve never really watched much of it, mainly because I don’t watch a whole lot of TV.  My roommate’s into it, though, and I just tonight watched the first few minutes of it.  A beautiful blonde did a very decent rendition of “I Go Walking After Midnight”.  Perhaps I should check out more of it?  Are the contestants usually pretty talented, or did I just get lucky and see the one who was?

This article pissed me right the hell off.  Not because of who it included, but because of who it left out: Stiff Little Fingers.  They didn’t have much of the Celtic vibe to them, but they were punk as fuck and, unlike many of the bands on that list, SLF were actually, you know, Irish.

News: It’s official – the Stone Roses will be reuniting for a tour!  Tom Waits to appear in post-apocalyptic Western!  Jack White’s in yet another band!  Billy Corgan is still a pompous douchebag!  All is right in the music world.

(In all seriousness, though, go to that link to Jack White’s new band, The Dead Weather.  Now listen to “Hang You From the Heavens”.  That, my friends, is some damned fine rock and roll.)

Song of the Week: To make up for their slight in the above-linked list, here are Stiff Little Fingers circa-1978, playing “Suspect Device” live on Ulster TV.

Oct 282008

Intro: Well, fall is in the air, the rock shows are moving inside, and the hipsters are trying to decide which kafia best compliments their boxframe glasses.  It also means, unfortunately, that I was well due for my semiannual illness, hence my missing last week’s column.  Again, my apologies for that.

Listening: Fall for me also means digging out old albums that I haven’t listened to in awhile.  Whether this is because fall makes me nostalgic or because the record companies are hoarding all their promising releases until Fat Sacks of Money DayChristmas is probably even odds.

Most recently, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to the two Loudermilk full-length albums.  Now, I will fully admit that I like the Loudermilk albums more than they deserve.  Man with Gun Kills Three and The Red Record are great albums.  But for me, they’re both the sort of albums that I could only in good conscience give a 10 to if we were talking about a 5-point scale.  The Red Record in particular is one of the best rock albums I’ve ever heard.  That the first rock show I ever went to was a Loudermilk show, or that I spent most of my formative years desperately wanting to be Mark Watrous probably has nothing to do with it.

Another such disk is an EP by a Portland-based band called PDeX, which has been soundtracking my drive to and from work the past couple days.  I’m actually working on a post/review/essay thing about that EP, so I’ll say no more about it for now, other than that it’s another fine example of music from the halcyon days of my youth.

On a more modern note, I became one of the last people in the world to acquire a copy of Carnavas by Silversun Pickups.  It’s awesome.  The single off of it, “Lazy Eye”, is pretty representative of the album both stylistically and quality-wise.  So basically my review is this – listen to the below and if you think you’d like that plus 10 more tracks kinda like it, well, then you should probably grab Carnavas:

Upcoming: New albums out today by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, The Cure, and Kaiser Chiefs.  Next week sees the release of new material from Sarah Brightman and Travis, as well as the US release of the entire Stereophonics back catalog.

Thinking: Honestly, I’ve been a little too busy to do much music-related thinking of late.  Most of my mental energy has been work- and/or thesis-oriented the past couple of weeks.  That being said, I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with my friend Becky about certain similarities between art (particularly music) and religion (particularly sacraments).  Now, it bears mentioning that I go back on forth on why, exactly, we make music and what it is we’re doing when we listen to it.  I do, however, think that at some level it’s about communicating important parts of the human experience which can’t be relayed any other way.  I mean, I could tell someone what Leonard Cohen meant by the lyrics in “Hallelujah”, that would, in a way, totally be missing the point of the song.  If I really wanted to communicate to someone what the song was all about, I think I’d have no other recourse than to just sit them down and play it for them.

And in this communicative aspect, I think, lies the core of the sacramental nature of music: in listening to music, we’re recipients of a message which transcends words.  It’s a level of communication which is entirely beyond normal verbal transactions.  At the moment, I’m pretty sure that that’s why we listen to music.  Each song is a message that cuts deeper than language, right to some deep and important structure of what it means to be human.

News: Island Records is turning 50.  Which in some circles is synonymous with saying that music itself is now a half-century old.  Island’s been responsible for a large portion of the good things to happen to the music industry in the past 50 years (though on the downside they’re also responsible for U2).  I mean, everyone from Led Zeppelin to Tom Waits released on Island at one point or another.  So, from Fifty-Two Tuesdays, happy birthday, Island!  I sincerely hope I’ll get to say the same in another 50 years.

In sadder news, Levi Stubbs, the lead singer of the Four Tops, died awhile ago.  If anyone ever wonders what Motown was about, they need look no further than Stubbs and company.  Here’s perhaps the defining tune of the whole Motown phenonemon, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops.

Rest in Peace.

Song of the Week: But on a happier note, what do you get when you combine Gosling (formerly Loudermilk) and David Bowie?   Pure, uncut awesome, that’s what.  Here they are doing “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)”, originally by David Bowie:

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.

Apr 222007

"Down among the fishes in an absence of sound"

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I snagged the new Grinderman album a few weeks ago and I have to be honest: I really don’t know what to think of it. It sounds like Nick Cave and his former Bad Seeds are trying to go all Tom Waits / coked-out blues-rock on us in his old age. The album is packed full of a dark, bluesy enthusiasm that marks a pretty significant change from earlier Nick Cave material.

I must say that I’m gratified to see that Grinderman’s lineup consists entirely of former Bad Seeds members. (In fact, it turns out that it’s just the latest iteration of Nick Cave’s solo quartet, renamed.) Nick Cave has the great ability of attracting and keeping them. (Taking notes, Mr. Trent Reznor? Mr. Fagan, Mr. Becker?) And the result of these long-time collaborators getting back in the studio is an extremely raw record of messy blues-rock.

The album is full of rough, energetic melodies (which are relatively hookless, instead tending towards a less patterned sound most of the time, giving several of the tracks a thoroughly improvised sound) and joyously noisy, clattering percussion. Cave’s vocals are in top form, comfortably alternating between moaning and fire-and-brimstone preaching through his oft-clever lyrics.

And with all that being said, I’m having a hard time figuring out why it is that I’m just not interested in the album. I mean, it has all the right elements: musically interesting, lyrically well-crafted and often clever (I’m a sucker for clever), and just generally a disc full of darkly energetic blues-rock. And yet I just can’t seem to get into it. It’s good, certainly, and it’s even the kind of thing that normally I’d be all over. But for some reason it just doesn’t do it for me. I’d much rather listen to some Tom Waits or some old Bad Seeds-era material. Who knows, though, maybe the album will grow on me the more I listen to it.

If raw, bluesy, dark, or noisy are your thing at all, then Grinderman might be an album to grab. They’ve got a couple songs streaming for your listening pleasure over at their myspace, so you can listen before you buy. I particularly recommend “Love Bomb”.