Thursday, June 30, 2005

Random, mostly Chicago-related things

I like to point out Chicago’s weaknesses. For no other reason than it tends to piss off the many rabid Chicago boosters. And I enjoy nothing better than factual support (as opposed to my usual flat-out fabrications) for these cruel forays into devil’s advocacy. So I was especially thrilled to see these:

America’s Cleanest Cities Yep, dead last.
Daley Pushes Ordinance to Close Taverns

More pollution, fewer bars? Excellent! And yes you whiners out there, I do admit Chicago’s probably the best, most livable big city in America. So chill already.

Speaking of smog, when did Bill Callahan’s weird folk thing stop sucking and start getting kinda good? Listening to Smog used to be about as much fun as stuffing pencils down your ears. But this is actually interesting:

The Well (mp3) - Smog

From A River Ain’t Too Much To Love on Drag City (Chicago label—see, see!)

Not necessarily my thing, but Gold Coast Refuse (Chicago band!) does the roots rock/Americana thing rather well. I can see fans of Wilco getting into this:

In A Bag (mp3) – Gold Coast Refuse

Big Buildings (mp3) – Gold Coast Refuse

From the LP Yours From Ascentia. More mp3s at the band’s Web site.

Another good Chicago (area) item: Todd & Holland Teas. I’ve been addicted to their Morning Dew blend—a really mellow, subtly fruity green tea—since I discovered it a couple years ago.

I’m not sure how I feel about The Shins Will Change Your Life. Yes, some rock crits abuse hyperbole and yes, a couple of these targets are deserving of ridicule. (I could spend hours discussing my conflicted feelings about Pitchfork and its hegemonic role.) On the other hand, it seems cowardly to yank clips out of context and post them anonymously without comment. When I originally read some of these reviews, they struck me as straight-on, gut reactions to music that may not otherwise get the attention it deserves. Does the medium play a part in molding the message? Of course. Duh. The bigger question is this: Are we supposed to believe it's dishonest or shameful to say there are albums that changed our lives? If so, I'm hopeless.

Baby MergeFinally, if I had a kid, s/he would totally be wearing this. Like every day.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Britpop revisited

Britpop! Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock
I've been meaning to talk about Britpop! Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock since I finished it a couple weeks ago, but last week's Salon article on Tony Blair and Chris Martin finally reminded me. The author of the latter, Brendan O’Neill, makes a pretty convincing case that "Martin is the rock star Blair once dreamt of becoming, and Blair is the kind of middle-aged man Martin is destined to become." Good stuff. (Though not, perhaps, if you have to endure Coldplay’s music or Blair’s leadership.)

Britpop documents an earlier period of political/musical collaboration—roughly 1994 to 1997—when the two biggest bands in Britain, Oasis and Blur, enjoyed drinks at 10 Downing Street when they weren’t slagging one another in the music press. To Americans, of course, the idea that a rock band would enjoy such access to a country’s leader is unimaginable. We’ve never taken "culture," commercially sanctioned, let alone underground, that seriously. Just witness the hysterical reaction to artists who've dared speak out against the Iraq war. Which makes candidate Blair's desperation to gain the public approval of the likes of Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn pretty bizarre. And the international branding of "Cool Britannia" rather sad and cynical.

But politics is actually a small part of Britpop. The book's also brimming with gossipy bits about Elastica's collective heroin habit, Brett Butler's (Suede) sexual ambiguity/insecurity and nervous breakdowns courtesy of Creation Records owner ­­Alan McGee and Blur's Albarn. Most fascinating for me, however, is the contrast between what passed as "indie" in Britain in the 90s (serious thought going into hairstyles and clothing, battle-of-the-bands competitions) and what the American scene, consumed as it was (is) with authenticity, tolerated.

Perhaps the difference owes to the damnable class thing. For a lot of working class British rockers like the Gallagher brothers it's perfectly acceptable to make money off your work. Loyalty to an indie ideal is meaningless when your only other option is bricklaying. American indie rock, born and bred by college radio, was and is, a mainly middle/upper-middle class phenomenon. Look at the big names/scene leaders of the 90s—Stephen Malkmus, Ian MacKaye, Mac McCaughan, Liz Phair—all from comfortable, supportive backgrounds. (Not sure about folks like Calvin Johnson and Gerard Cosley, but I can guess.) And if you’ve grown up in that environment, the appearance of aspiration just isn’t the thing nor, need it be said, is it necessary.

So. The best moments of Britpop. Certainly not Oasis (though the Gallaghers, in various interviews, have provided us with some of the most fabulously witless quotes in rock history—and continue to do so on a daily basis). Ten years on, Pulp holds up as an admirable, even heroic band. And though Blur often shoots itself in the foot, artistically speaking, they nevertheless succeed despite themselves. How else to explain the very wonderful Tender—purveyor of that hoariest rock cliché, the gospel choir? If you hate this song, you don’t have a heart, simple as that.

Common People (mp3) – Pulp

Tender (mp3) - Blur

From Different Class and 13 or Best of Blur.

Monday, June 27, 2005

No Hits 6.27.05

By The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Natural contrarian that I am, I’m always suspicious of bands du jour, especially among indie rock fans who can be, let’s face it, too willing to embrace something just because it’s new and not-yet-popular. When the hype reaches a pitch that would make an NME journalist blush, you’ve gotta take a step back.

That’s strike one against Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Strike two's the myth perpetuated by the band that they’re just a bunch of noble savages recently emerged from the woods, innocent of anything that’s happened in underground rock in the past well, forever. (C’mon Alec, even my mom knows the words to Float On!) Listening to The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth, I’d be very surprised, astonished even, if CYHSY hadn’t heard The Clean. Though I guess it's possible the Dunedin sound has filtered down though other sources. Oh well, that’s their story anyway.

But I’m happy to report my suspicions are entirely groundless (this time—I’m still right about Bloc Party). The band’s self-titled album is outstanding—quirky, tuneful, joyous and more self-assured than any debut deserves to be. And Skin is the best track on the record, maybe even the best song of 2005. I defy you not to get up and dance in your miserable little office cube when you hear it.

Copies of the self-produced CD are currently sold out, but I’m sure the band is working feverishly to make more. In the meantime, a bunch of downloads are available over on their Web site. CYHSY plan to tour in the fall with The National—a killer double bill.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Hit the promised land

If there are any sacred cows here at SYF (and who are we kidding; there are many), top of the list is one Polly Jean. For some people over at the right there, she's at the top of the crap heap (I may have even heard the word "pretentious" bandied about in a conversation or two) while others pour over their microdrives full of B-sides and swiped shows for an accidental money note.

Me, given, my god, a ten year history with the lady, I can't feel quite comfortable in either camp.

I saw PJ Harvey at Metro touring Rid Of Me and it was a jaw-dropping show. As the lights went up, there was a tiny sparkly lady on stage with huge sunglasses just beginning to crack a huge shit-eating grin. My impression at the time, which I suppose I have been disabused of, was that the costume was a wink with us, rather than for us or at us, a sort of silly flirtation with star power that honored the audience rather than instructed. But, in any case, twenty seconds later, costumes were the last thing on anyone's mind, as there was rock-bringing afoot and she did so impressively and forcefully. You get scarred by a concert like that, so much so that you're forever interested in what the artist does, even if what you witness becomes performance art, then bad performance art, and perhaps even utter garbage.

Polly has cranked out some serious poop. It's possible I'm missing something, but to my ear there is little to excuse her latest, "stripped down" Uh Huh Her. For a songwriter with her talent still obviously at the top of her game, it's just odd that minimalism didn't force distillation rather than mere reduction. As much as I believe that PJ has the goods, there has been too much perceived manipulation of perception, too much production of image, too little there there since To Bring You My Love. It's not that I need Polly to rock, but I want to see her do something with the conviction I witnessed at the Metro.

Collaborations with Josh Homme didn't produce anything interesting (except some spectacularly bad acting) but I am very happy to report (very late I know) that another Queen of the Stone Age and former Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan got Polly Jean to get after it on Hit The City (mp3) from Bubblegum. The track itself is worth a listen for all of you who'd given up hope and the album itself is an heir to the stoner-rock Roxy Music concept that was introduced on Rated R. I'm not sure if it's because she's in the background or if it's the material itself, an attachment to Lanegan or the um, throb of the thing, but the sound of the voice, finally, again, matches the memory.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Big wet rose in my teeth

The National/AlligatorI’m really loving Alligator from The National.

I realize this isn’t a terribly original opinion as loads of tastemakers have already pledged allegiance to this gorgeous album. But shit, it’s been on almost constant rotation since I bought it last weekend. And I can barely articulate why.

This isn’t the kind of music that grabs you immediately. It’s not loud or angry or hooky. It’s subtle and complicated, made with palpable care and craft. Pretty, trebly guitars balance singer Matt Berninger’s strangely warm and engaging baritone and an assertive rhythm section keeps things moving nicely. Then come the strings! A study in contrasts, the record appeals both to a love of orchestral pop and craving for lean, spare post-punk arrangements. And the lyrics. They're elliptical, infused with regret about lost opportunities, loneliness and frustration with drug and booze-addled friends. Yet never hopeless.

Show up here loaded with bells on your toes
I don't care what you're into
I'll put velvet ropes around you, if that's what you need

Why did you listen to that man, that man's a balloon
Oh, you gotta get out and get back to me
John, you gotta get out and get back to me.

Friend of Mine (mp3) – The National

All The Wine (mp3) – The National

I had downloaded about half the album before I actually coughed up cash for the CD. But the sequencing of this LP is so perfect, I felt like I was hearing downloaded tracks like All The Wine for the first time. So go buy it already—I can’t recommend Alligator highly enough.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Synth-pop paradise

FigurineIf you like The Postal Service, but find them just a little too soulful, you should probably know about Jimmy Tamborello’s other pop project, Figurine. (With those two endeavors, plus Dntel, when does this guy sleep?) Figurine doesn't attempt originality of any kind--it's a shiny, plastic facsimile of all those 80s synth-pop bands you love. This trio of long-distance friends--one in L.A., one in S.F. and one in Massachusetts--originally set out, in fact, to sound like Depeche Mode.

Songs about checking email and instant messaging ex-girlfriends make ignoring the words essential if you’re going to find any kind of enjoyment in this music. But if you can get past the concept and the lyrics, Figurine’s a lot of fun, with cracking drum machine beats, electronically blipped and bleeped melodies, ambient fuzz and vocals unabashedly swiped from Bernard Sumner. Nah, it’s not as good as New Order, but sometimes you have to try something different. Or something exactly the same.

Impossible (mp3) – Figurine

Way to Good (mp3) – Figurine

An Electronic Address (mp3) – Figurine

Blue Monday (mp3) – New Order

Figurine's latest album is The Heartfelt from March Records. Blue Monday comes from Power, Corruption & Lies--which you already knew, smarty pants.

Monday, June 20, 2005

McSweeney's slugfest

In the fine tradition of Dale Peck vs. Rick Moody and Jonathan Franzen vs. Oprah (not to mention Jonathan Franzen vs. pretty much every one else), another exciting literary feud is brewing! In yesterday's New York Times Book Review, Neal Pollock previewed his forthcoming memoir, whining about callous treatment at the hands of former boss Dave Eggers. Today, Eggers goes for the kidneys with an assault on Pollack's fact-checking abilities. Pollock's response? The wuss backs down.

Quick show of hands: Who's even remotely interested in either one of these guys anymore? I thought so.

No Hits 6.20.05

Persimmon Tree (mp3) – Midnight Movies

Arty, cinematic, oddly enchanting, definitely creepy, Persimmon Tree by L.A. trio Midnight Movies sounds like a Clinic song interpreted by Nico. This isn’t your usual sunny SoCal pop—more like the sonic landscape of the
Black Dahlia and Raymond Chandler. The band’s guitar/keyboards/drums setup is also a slight deviation from the norm: Olivier is the lead vocalist and drummer. (Offhand, I can’t even think of bands with drummers who usually sing lead vocals—though I’m sure there are a few.) MM’s getting plenty of attention in their hometown, including a nod from LA Weekly for best pop/rock band. Their debut album is on Emperor Norton.

Midnight Movies actually reminds me quite a bit of Helium, though at their peak in the mid-90s Helium was way weirder and more innovative than Midnight Movies. Some Helium work hasn’t aged well—particularly after Mary Timony started singing about dragons and rainbows—but the Pirate Prude EP is still brilliant. Funny thing, I found Pirate Prude so abrasive and off-putting the first time, I sold the CD back, then ended up buying it again a year later and loving it.

Looks like it's out of print, so I’m not going to feel guilty about posting several tracks.

Baby Vampire Made Me (mp3) – Helium

XXX (mp3) – Helium

I’ll Get You, I Mean It (mp3) – Helium

Key lyrics from XXX:

Now I feel good, I feel like candy,
Go out on the street I'm gonna make some money.
That was just a joke about the money,
You're gonna pay me with your life.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Watch me, please

I hate to encourage folks to watch bad T.V. But I have to give a shout-out to Fire Me Please, the best crappy reality show of the new summer season. The premise: Two people compete to see who can get fired their first day at a shitty, minimum wage job. The tricky part--getting the boot as close to 3 pm as possible without going past 3. This set-up encourages all kinds of wacky shenanigans--incessant whistling, hitting on customers, insulting the boss--that you wish you could do at your job. A rip-off of a British original, it has that really excellent low-budget vibe and feeling of cheesy desperation. Believe me, no one's going from here to appear on some "reality star" edition of Fear Factor.

Oh, and since I'm expected to post mp3s at this point, why not something from The Album Leaf. It's such an easy stab at credibility. (It was either that or Bullette, eh?)

Eastern Glow (mp3) from In A Safe Place

Monday, June 13, 2005

No Hits 6.13.05

Grey Snake (mp3) - Palaxy Tracks

Sometimes you know exactly why you like a song—it fits some stupid formula you love (tight, melodic pop-punk, for example) or it evokes some memory. Other times, the reason’s elusive. You like a song despite the fact that it seems to go against all you hold true and dear. Such is Grey Snake, a song that winds, and twists and meanders (goddammit--I hate meandering!) and sounds like something from Chicago’s mid-90s post-rock scene (not my favorite sound).

If nothing else, it reminds me of The Sea and Cake, a band I briefly flirted with (though almost getting beaten up by a psycho fan at a S&C show froze the bloom off that rose rather quickly). Not coincidentally, Sea and Cake members, including Archer Prewitt (who I still really like) played on Palaxy Tracks’ last album. Also not coincidentally, Palaxy Tracks relocated from Austin to Chicago a few years ago. Sounds like they’ve been here forever.

Listen to this track for the amazing point where it comes to an almost complete standstill, with only the drum and bass mimicking a barely beating heart. And far in the background—the eerie scratch of whispers. Ghosts? Family members prematurely plotting the funeral? Whatever. It’s outstanding atmospherics. From recent release Twelve Rooms.

Bonus from The Sea and Cake’s The Biz:

Leeora (mp3)

The Transaction (mp3)

And related: Top 10 Songs of the Mid-1990s Chicago Rock Scene.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Books and bands

I don’t, as a rule, like theme mixes. When I make mix CDs, I just use songs I like, songs I happen to be listening to at the time or songs I know the mix recipient will appreciate, arranged in a sonically interesting way. Otherwise, the temptation exists to include stuff that really isn’t that good—just because it fits the theme.

But I kind of had fun with that whole Six Feet Under/Los Angeles post last week. And since I spent yesterday at the Printer’s Row Book Fair, I started thinking about relatively newish bands/artists with book-related names.

Smells Like Content (mp3) – The Books from Lost and Safe

If Not Now, Whenever (mp3) – The Books

Munich (mp3) – The Editors

Bridge (mp3) – The Paperbacks from An Episode of Sparrows

Guy Debord Is Really Dead (mp3) – The Playwrights from Guy Debord Is Really Dead

Welcome To The Middle Ages (mp3) – The Playwrights

Since I Met You
(mp3) - Bookworm from Solos in Stereo

I really recommend the Playwrights stuff—reminds me of Mission of Burma.

Also, other bands with literary names (I'll add The Reivers, Boo Radleys and Heaven 17). And check out this list of literary songs.

So if you don’t live in Chicago (and care anyway), Printer’s Row is the Midwest’s largest outdoor book fair. I hadn’t been for a couple years, and it was more crowded and a lot hotter than I remember. It was tough getting to the book tables to browse, so the only thing I ended up buying was Dallas Doc—stories from a self-billed “cowboy vet” for my mom (she likes cowboys and anything to do with animals). The doc, David Carlton, was there to sign books in full cowboy gear (hat, vest, chaps, etc.) in 90 degree weather—but I guess if you’re from Texas you’ve gotta be used to it.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Just a quickie

I'm really excited about a band Take Your Medicine posted on yesterday. Help She Can't Swim (yeah, bad name) are a bunch of bratty, snot-nosed punks from the U.K. with plenty of energy and noisy, angular guitars. I already put in an order for their album. I'm not easily seduced, so that's saying a lot. Get over there and see for yourself.

One of these adorable kids' songs is called Fermez La Bouche. I'd just like to take some time out and dedicate it to everyone in the blogosphere and mainstream media yapping about Coldplay. Seriously, shut up already.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Cup 'O Joe, Anyone?

Metropolis Coffee Company is my new favorite coffehouse in Chicago. Anyone who has brought up the subject of coffee with me during the past year have had to listen to me go on (and on) about why Metropolis is the bee's knees in my book.

A welcomed relief from the by now generic coffee culture cultivated and branded by Starbucks and others, Metropolis focuses on great coffee (they roast several great blends) and a relaxed eclectic scene that attracts everyone from local artists and musicians to far-flung yuppies and students alike. On any given day, you'll overhear conversations about organic farming co-ops in the making, recent gallery openings, winning Scrabble strategies, or a hundred other everyday stories.

And now there is one more reason to make the trek up to 1029 Granville:
Daniel Teafoe's U2/3D. On exhibit through June 19, this collection of 3D photographic images gives you the rare pleasure to relive U2's 2001 Elevation tour. What more could you ask for?

If you are reading this before June 15, be sure to vote for Metropolis in Citysearch's
2005 Best Coffee in Chicago reader poll.

Hooray for Wednesday

The Minders

Oh man, how did I miss the boat on The Minders? With their insanely Beatleseque melodies and tight connections to Apples In Stereo and Elliott Smith and membership in the Elephant 6 diaspora, this should’ve been dead obvious years ago. Better late than never, I guess.

It was a long day at work, so here’s a brief bio from Allmusic (aka, the lazy woman’s blog post filler):

Yet another branch of the Elephant 6 collective's family tree, the Minders were led by singer/songwriter Martyn Leaper, a British expatriate living in Denver, CO. There he befriended Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider, who agreed to release the Minders' debut EP
Come On and Hear!! on Elephant 6 in the spring of 1996 . . . The Minders' first full-length effort, Hooray for Tuesday, appeared a year later; soon after the band splintered as Leaper and Cole relocated to Portland, OR, where they assembled a new line-up also featuring lead guitarist Adam Goldman, bassist Bryce Edwards and keyboardist Rachel Blumberg. The Minders' early singles were compiled in 1999 on Cul-de-Sacs & Dead Ends. The Down In Fall EP followed a year later. A third studio effort, Golden Street, emerged in spring 2001.

The only things I would add are this:

1. I don’t think they’ve broken up. Therefore Allmusic’s past tense is confusing.
2. Joanna Bolme—former Elliott Smith girlfriend, coproducer of In The Basement On The Hill and Jicks member (not necessarily in that order)—briefly joined as bassist for The Minders after they relocated to Portland.
3. Hooray for Tuesday, produced by Robert Schneider, is an album you should own. It sounds similar to, but better than, any single AIS album. The title tune—probably the most “famous” Minders song—is the best fake Sgt. Pepper 's track you’ll ever hear. Seriously perfect.

From Hooray For Tuesday:

Hooray For Tuesday (mp3)

Frida (mp3)

From Future Is Always Perfect EP:

Here Goes Nothing (mp3)

Elliott Smith's cover:

Hooray For Tuesday (mp3)

And from Minders/AIS satellite, Dressy Bessy

Side 2 (mp3)

Monday, June 06, 2005

No Hits 6.6.05

Heavy Lifting (mp3) - Ambulance Ltd

Too many pop songs—even the good ones—beat their catchiest parts to a lifeless pulp. They run with the hook-laden chorus one too many times, serve up that fourth snappy verse when you were sated at three. So it’s refreshing when a band uses its best ideas sparingly.

Such is the case with Heavy Lifting by Brooklyn-domiciled Ambulance Ltd, a song that starts with a nice strumming build-up only to kick into rocking full-band mode around the one-minute mark. Another minute later—
just as the contagious melody has seared itself onto your hippocampus—it’s gone and the band is executing a long, relaxed wind down.

I wish I could say the rest of the self-titled album was this good. There are a few highlights—particularly when Ambulance is doing the fuzzed-out Ride/My Bloody Valentine thing. But too often it drones a la Velvet Underground (self-consciously so—the album includes a VU cover), which doesn’t particularly suit it. Stream the record for yourself at the band’s Web site.

Just cuz I'm in the mood and love em so, here's one of Ride's best cuts. (Now this is an album you should own.)

Seagull (mp3) - Ride

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Six feet almost over

Six Feet Under

I know a lot of people think Six Feet Under jumped the shark a couple seasons ago. I disagree. True, this show may never again reach the apex of Episode 38. But I still love Nate and David and Clair and Ruth and Rico and Keith. (I don’t still love Brenda, because I never did—though she finally seems to be mellowing out. And I always thought George was a very, very bad idea.)

Mostly, I love the setting. L.A. isn’t just a backdrop, but a character of endless possibilities. Because there’s no center and the geographic boundaries seem unmapped, anything could happen, anyone could walk on. Even the dead, which they frequently do. In college, I had a friend from L.A. who believed in ghosts—not ironically or as a way of being eccentric (there was a lot of that going around at Vassar). But as living, guiding presences. I think if you’ve ever spent extended periods in L.A., you understand this. More than any place I’ve lived, there seems to be a lot more going on than meets the eye. And you can believe that permeable borders go beyond the merely geographic.

In honor of Six Feet Under and its new—and last—season starting tomorrow night, a few songs about L.A.:

Los Angeles (mp3) – X

Los Angeles (mp3) – Frank Black

This Town (mp3) – The Go-Gos

Ode To L.A. (mp3) – The Raveonettes

LA (mp3) – Elliott Smith

Los Angeles, I’m Yours (mp3) – The Decemberists

Moving To L.A. (mp3) – Art Brut

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Something completely different

A post on Swen’s Blog led me to Koolarrow Records, a fascinating label run by former Faith No More bassist Billy Gould. Gould signs artists who represent "real world music”—Spanish hip-hop, Danish experimental pop, Mexican death metal—as well as some curious hybrids. Koolarrow’s also got a few more predictable acts like Seattle-based Hog Molly, the current home of Tad Doyle, who some of you might remember as leadman for early Sub Pop act Tad. The site’s full of free downloads. Here’s a couple of my faves:

Latvian Lovers/Not From There
Not From There (Austrian-Australian)

Sticky Wes (mp3)

Lounge Anthem (mp3)

Engine Machine/Dureforsog
Dureforsog (Danish)

Interlude (mp3)

Living In Vain (mp3)

And unrelated: NME keeps fuelling rumors that The Stone Roses are getting back together. I guess if bands with as much internal discord as Dino Jr and The Pixies can reunite in the name of cash, The Stone Roses can too. The thing is, the band had a rep for putting on crap live shows the first time around. Can you even imagine what they’ll sound like as a nostalgia act? Ugh. (And this is coming from someone who counts their debut as almost certainly her favorite album of all time. This pretty well summarizes how I feel about it.)

Also, more hate for Wal-Mart. Plus, a trailer for the new documentary on that evil empire, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.