Dec 312009

1. Bad Veins, “Gold and Warm”
2. Them Crooked Vultures, “Caligulove”
3. The Avett Brothers, “Kick Drum Heart”
4. A.A. Bondy, “I Can See the Pines Are Dancing”
5. Monsters Of Folk, “The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me”
6. Silversun Pickups, “Catch & Release”
7. Morrissey, “Something Is Squeezing My Skull”
8. Franz Ferdinand, “Ulysses”
9. Wilco, “Country Disappeared”
10. A.A. Bondy, “Oh the Vampyre”
11. Third Eye Blind, “Bonfire”
12. Jarvis Cocker, “I Never Said I Was Deep”
13. Neko Case, “This Tornado Loves You”
14. Silversun Pickups, “It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone”
15. The Dead Weather, “Hang You From The Heavens”
16. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, “Air Mattress”
17. Wilco, “Bull Black Nova”
18. Neko Case, “Magpie To The Morning”
19. Molly Lewis, “Poker Face (Lady GaGa cover)”

This was an incredibly hard year to narrow down to just one album. Also, this was the first year that I have had more than one artist with more than one track on my “Best Of” mix. (I’ve been doing these since 2005 so they predate the blog by a few years.)

Any songs not on my mix that are on your person Best Of list? Any songs I included that should be relegated without comment to the dustbin of musical history? As always, commentary and recrimination can be directed through the comments section.

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:

May 222007

Well, well, well. Once again we have a tie in the voting. We also, unfortunately, have a rather unimpressive lineup for this weeks voting (as you’ll see presently.) Truly a sorrowful state of affairs. And as much as I’m intrigued to hear the new Maroon 5 album, I’m going to have to go with the Used for this next week. I think what I will do, however, is put Maroon 5 back on the list for this week, so if any of you are unimpressed by the other options, please feel free to vote for it. Why you ask? Well because from what Maroon 5 I’ve heard, they sound like a pop band with some talent and potential, but in need of experience, musical maturity, and a chance to work out their own sound. So while I wasn’t too thrilled with Songs About Jane, I’m hopeful that It Won’t Be Soon Before Long will be better (despite a rather off-putting title.) So if you voted for Maroon 5 last week or if you just don’t like any of the other options this week, please feel free to vote for them again this week.

As I said, not much selection this week. Metacritic only turned up three albums and the Billboard new releases were the usual noise of singles, foreign releases, special editions, and reissues (the hot re-release bands this week are the Alan Parsons Project and Creedence Clearwater Revival, apparently) and only turned up a Juliana Hatfield EP. and a handful of debuts that didn’t pique my interest enough to make it onto the list. But anyway, your options for this week:

Maroon 5, It Won’t Be Soon Before Long
R. Kelly, Double Up
Satellite Party, Ultra Payloaded
Richard Thompson, Sweet Warrior
Juliana Hatfield, Sittin’ in a Tree

May 222007

Wilco, Sky Blue Sky

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Artist: Wilco
Album: Sky Blue Sky
Label: Nonesuch
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.5.15
Score: 8/10

Well, it only took Wilco took 12 years and 8 discs worth of studio material, but they have finally released an album that everyone can enjoy. Sky Blue Sky is, without a doubt, the most accessible Wilco album to date. Gone are the fence-straddling rock/country hybridism of their early work, the oft-surreal art-rock of their work with Billy Bragg, and the noisy experimental sound of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. What’s left is an album full of genuinely listenable music, spanning the divide between rock and alt-country. Mostly down-tempo and introspective, Sky Blue Sky is an album full of conflict and sorrow, edged with hope and redemption.

This broad thematic description is probably best instantiated in the album’s title track. Soft slide guitars and brushed snares punctuate a pleasant, jaunty lead guitar line and support the rather hopeless lyrics (“Oh I didn’t die / I should be satisfied / I survived / that’s good enough for now.”) This kind juxtaposition of a pleasant, happy melody with such sorrowful lyrics is an effect which is hard to pull off, but which Wilco have really mastered and show it off in several places on the album. “Shake It Off” features a sly major melody paired with lines like “A ceiling fan is on / Chopping up my dreams.” “Hate It Here” wraps lyrical heartbreak (“I try to stay busy / I take out the trash, I sweep the floor / try to keep myself occupied / ’cause I know you don’t live here anymore”) in the kind of slightly-bluesy rock groove which is more often found in songs about love than about heartbreak.

Sky Blue Sky is, however, far from being a one trick pony. Fans of the rock of the 70s will definitely hear its influence throughout the album, throughout which a solid, down-tempo rock feel predominates. (The guitar solo at the end of “Side with the Seeds” is Eagles-ish enough to give me flashbacks. A feat, considering I wasn’t actually yet alive in the 70s.) The opening track, “Either Way”, has an almost Cat Stevens feel to it, with busy, hooky accoustic guitar and a decidedly folk tinge to its classic rock sound.

The price that’s paid for this accessibility is that it’s a decidedly flatter album than some of Wilco’s other work. One gets the feel that, while they’ve not heard these songs before, they’ve heard enough like them that the album isn’t going to really surprise them. And it doesn’t, particularly. It lacks a lot of the highs (“Hummingbird”, “Poor Places”, in my book) and lows (“Dash 7”, “All You Fascists”) that a listener could find in the band’s previous work.

Wilco has, once again, delivered a great record full of wistful melancholy, sorrow, and hope. And while they’ve left behind quite a bit of what many people think of as being quintessentially “Wilco”, they’ve simultaneously gained a level of accessibility that a great deal of their other music, while brilliant, simply didn’t have. This is precisely why, if you’ve missed the last decade plus of Wilco music, this is probably the best place to start. It’s not only rewarding to listen to, but also easy. I’m fairly confident that most people will find many songs on here that they enjoy listening to them, and quite a few even that will speak to them.

As for longtime Wilco fans, it’s a great record, but depending on one’s taste, it may be a bit of a let down. It’s got great replay value, but it’s not going to kick Yankee Hotel Foxtrot out of rotation, by any means. And while it’s a pleasant listen, it lacks the flashes of brilliance that I found on A Ghost is Born and A.M. and which really hooked me on the band. That being said, I definitely recommend picking it up. It’s not as daring as previous Wilco records, but that’s not entirely a bad thing.

May 152007

Sorry for the delay there, folks. As per your voting requests of a couple weeks ago, I’ve posted my review of Travis’ The Boy with No Name. And once again you, the readers, have spoken. Unfortunately those of you that voiced your vote did so in equal volumes for Rufus Wainwright and for Wilco. So, as a result, I’m gonna invoke my tie-breaking abilities and tip the vote in favor of Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. In the meantime, while you’re looking forward to that, here’s some voting!

This week’s lineup is mostly debuts and little-known bands with the exception of new albums from two possibly unexpected acts: Hanson and Ozzy Osbourne. That’s right, Hanson have yet to give in to the shame of “MMMBop” and disappear as common sense and good taste might dictate. In similarly stunning news, Ozzy Osbourne is still alive. This week’s voting also delivers to us one of the most pretentious debuttitles I’ve seen in quite awhile with the long-winded Everyday I Said A Prayer For Kathy And Made A One Inch Square, the fourth album from indie band Wheat.

So, all that being said, your options:

1990s, Cookies
Meg Baird , Dear Companion
Battles, Mirrored
The Bravery, The Sun And The Moon
Erasure, Light At The End Of The World
Handsome Furs, Plague Park
Hanson , The Walk
Maroon 5, It Won’t Be Soon Before Long
The National, Boxer
Ozzy Osbourne , Black Rain
Shapes And Sizes , Split Lips, Winnings Hips, A Shiner
The Used , Lies For The Liars
Voxtrot , Voxtrot
Wheat, Everyday I Said A Prayer For Kathy And Made A One Inch Square