Friday, March 31, 2006

Months and money

Matchstick Men
Matchstick Men

Months and Money (Dubwhore mix) - Flying Matchstick Men

Let's say I walk into a bar or club. (No, this isn't the setup for a joke.) Assuming I'm not there to see a band play, these are the three things I'm going to do: drink, talk and, if there is one, feed the jukebox. Note, "dance" doesn't make this short list. That said, I love a good dance track. This is a good dance track.

Happy weekend.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Hearing voices

Medieval choir

La Plus Grant Chiere - The Orlando Consort

Mouth's Cradle - Bjork

Oh, Lady Be Good - Ella Fitzgerald

Harmony - United Sacred Harp Music Association

Hell Hound On My Trail - Robert Johnson

Nail In The Sky - Howe Gelb

Last night I was listening to two of my newest album purchases, The Orlando Consort's Food, Wine & Song and Howe Gelb's 'Sno Angel Like You. They're not connected in any obvious way, but both remind me of something the Medievals knew and we 21st century rockists often forget: The human voice is not just an instrument, it's the most versatile and expressive one of them all.

Food, Wine & Song--Music and Feasting in Renaissance Europe, The Orlando Consort (Amazon: US)
Medulla, Bjork (Amazon: US, UK)
Our Love Is Here To Stay: Ella & Louis Sing Gershwin, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald (Amazon: US)
In Sweetest Union Join, United Sacred Heart Music Association (iTunes, eMusic)
King of the Delta Blues, Robert Johnson (Amazon: US)
'Sno Angel Like You, Howe Gelb (Amazon: US, UK)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Better than pleasant


Making it in the music world is hard enough without naming your band "Pleasant." It's critical bear-baiting, really: an invitation for weary, jaded and underpaid rock scribes (or unpaid bloggers) to damn you with faint praise, or worse. With near-synonyms like "bland" and "forgettable" so easy to slap on a review, why risk it?

Well, Pleasant is better than pleasant. Thank God, right? The Chapel Hill foursome isn't the best band I've ever heard, maybe not even the best band I've heard this month, but they're really good--confident and likeable without being overconfident or too eager to please. Not abstruse, but not trendy-seeming either. Pleasant's sound has obvious touchstones in 90s indie rock, specifically, Pavement (singer Sean Parker very effectively deploys Malkmus' falsetto shrieks, la-la-las and speak-sing devices). But the band isn't any more derivative than anyone else these days. And their songs--sharp, snappy and straightforward, thanks to a vivacious rhythm section and clear, ringing, melodic lead guitar lines--are memorable. Plus, they're adorable (see above photo). Highly recommended.

Welcome Come In - Pleasant

Where You Are - Pleasant

Horrible - Pleasant

Pleasant's new album is Awkward as a Beehive, which you can order through the band's Web site ($10 including shipping).

Monday, March 27, 2006

Pop art

Costume Party
Costume Party, Liz Wong

There will be no "No Hits" weekly featured-song thingy today. I didn't listen to a lot of new music this weekend--with the exception of excellent new Canadian band, Museum Pieces--because I spent a good chunk of it putting together mixes for various people and this usually involves listening to older (by older, I'm talking blog-time older--more than a couple weeks) faves. This shouldn't take such massive amounts of time, but it does. I agonize over track selection, obsess over sequencing and tinker with the ends of songs that fade out a little too long and slow. Then I have to test every mix at least twice to make sure it sounds just right. That's five to six hours right there.

The best thing I worked on was a pure pop mix of the catchiest songs I know. Anything of this nature is going to be a platform for my personal all-time hit list, including The Archies' "Sugar Sugar." Let me get something off my chest: This is probably my favorite song. I know. I wish I could say it was something cool like Slint's "Good Morning, Captain," or a challenging number from Suicide, Captain Beefheart, John Fahey, hell, even X-Ray Spex--one of the those names hipsters toss around with varying degrees of sincerity. But no, it's an unambiguous corporate product written by songwriters-for-hire and performed by a fake band. It's almost the equivalent of a commercial jingle. The rest of these? Welcome to what plays in my head most of the time.

Sugar Sugar - The Archies

Groovy Tuesday - The Smithereens

Sorry Again - Velocity Girl

Will You Love Me Tomorrow - The Shirelles

Love Goes On! - The Go-Betweens

While searching for an image for this post, I found the super cool Artghost site of Seattle artists Liz Wong and Eric Adler. The above image is one of Wong's paintings. What I'm particularly coveting, though, are the fantabulous pop art handbags! If I wasn't experienced at making bags myself and didn't have an obscene amount of fabric on hand, I'd order one for sure.

I'd been contemplating it for a while and finally signed up for eMusic this weekend. The 50 download free trial and $9.95/40-download-per-month deal seemed too good to pass up. I'll probably use it for what I mainly do with iTunes now--buy single tracks and EPs. (I'm old school about full albums; I want the actual CDs.) Anyway, the first thing I got with my free trial were a couple preview tracks from Les Savy Fav's forthcoming EP Plagues & Snakes (April 11). Can't say I was blown away by either song. Is it just me or does "Raging in the Plague Age" have a scuzzy hair metal vibe? Or maybe I'm just feeling grumpy cuz the weekend's over...

Raging in the Plague Age - Les Savy Fav

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Museum Pieces

The Museum Pieces

Philadelphia may seem like an odd choice of a name for the debut LP of one of Halifax, Nova Scotia's most promising new bands. But The Museum Pieces' songwriter and lead singer, Tyler Messick, is originally from Pennsylvania Dutch country. Along with lyrical longings for West Virginia valleys and the Hudson River, Messick has hauled his intelligent, bluesy brand of Americana (heard on his first solo record, Grain Sales of 1940) north and adapted it to a full-band sound that includes psychedelic Eastern-tinged guitar solos, rambling piano lines and distinctive pop hooks. Messick's warm and wobbly tenor recalls a young Neil Young, Sam Beam and many in the current Misra catalogue. It's particularly charming when backed by the grittier vocal stylings of bassist Pamela McInnis (who apparently has now left the group).

The band--which also includes drummer Andy March--run Youth Club Records, where you can order your copy of Philadelphia. And folks attending Canada's Juno Awards in Halifax next weekend should look for The Museum Pieces playing several showcases.

Avalon Sank - The Museum Pieces

Lewis and Clark - The Museum Pieces

It Keeps Me Up - The Museum Pieces

Alone - Tyler Messick

The Gravel Path - Tyler Messick

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Shack is back

Liverpool cemetery

Come on Jack, let's get you home,
Come on follow me.
Your mama, she's not afraid any more,
She's in the cemetery.

Daniella - Shack

Butterfly - Shack

I follow signs. I believe there's something to seemingly random related events.

I'd had a little unfinished meditation on Shack's song "Daniella" kicking around the Blogger queue for more than a month. Usually that's a sign that I'm never going to finish a damn post and it's time to punch the delete button. I'd intended to do just that the other day. Then we received an email from the Shack camp with a new mp3 from the forthcoming album The Corner of Miles and Gil and I changed my mind. Majestic, hooky, orchestral pop songs like "Butterfly" deserve to be heard. And with the ADD-afflicted music press and many in the mp3 blogosphere occupied chasing the latest quartet of 21-year olds, I take this as a sign my time's better spent talking about talented, veteran underdogs like Michael Head.

While "deserve" sporadically figures into rock success narratives, "luck" could be claimed as their primary theme. Even among hard-luck tales, the Shack backstory, spanning more than 20 years, is a sorry one. Mick Head and brother John's misfortune with bands The Pale Fountains, The Strands and Shack run the gamut--label screw-ups, bad record release timing, the death of a bandmate, fire that destroyed an album master, heroin and other soul-killing substances. (If you really want the long, gory tale, wander over to Shack's Web site. Also, now-departed blog The Mystical Beast wrote a good overview of Shack last spring.) But the important thing to know is this: Head is one of the best songwriters to come out of Britain in, oh, decades. With a pinky on the handle, he mops the floor with all the usual Britpop suspects. Do I really need to name names?

So "Daniella," my original subject. I've read one review of 1999's HMS Fable (US, UK) that disparagingly referred to this, the album's closing track, as "tacked on" and another calling it "slight." In a way, both assertions are true. The song is a somber entry in an otherwise cheery volume of buoyant pop tunes. On an album that is crisp, bright, spacious, epic, "Daniella" is muffled, dim, cramped and specific. It's been suggested that this is Head's tribute to his great hero, Arthur Lee of Love. Dunno, I don't think Love ever sounded this bleak. "Daniella" is a folk song, an antidiluvian-sounding ballad (possibly a murder ballad, though if you can prove the murder part you're a better texual analyst than I am) with a narrative that begins in medias res and a structure that's roughly verse-verse-verse-refrain. And "Daniella" is slight in the sense that it's a wisp, a gasp, the ghostly murmurings of the walking dead--half-life Liverpool junkies searching for things as imperative as lost sons and dead mothers, and as pedestrian as something to eat. Rarely does a minor key and eerie moan of an ending seem as earned or authentic.

If you listen to the above tracks, I think you'll look with anticipation to the new Shack record and, in the meantime, want to seek out the other albums. Fable and 2003's Here's Tom With the Weather (US, UK) are widely available. But good luck finding the other records in the U.S. (Brits can pretty easily get their hands on most of the Head back catalogue.) Though there's a little jewel to be found on iTunes: Live in Liverpool 1992, Arthur Lee accompanied by Shack. (Wow.)

A House Is Not a Motel - Arthur Lee and Shack

Oh! Keep forgetting to mention that if you haven't already, you must, must, must check out The Harvey Girls, one of the cool bands on SVC Records (of Spoilt Victorian Child blog fame). I just can't get enough of them. Now you too can cram all the Girl's Brill Building-via-C86 hooks, Spectoresque drum rolls and coos, yummy, strummy campfire musings and electronic jaunts (yes, all on one record) on your hard drive. The Harvey Girls' The Wild Farewell is available on iTunes--U.S., U.K. and Canada (probably more countries, but those are the three I checked).

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

New and newish

Cannibal Sea - Essex Green

Cardinal Points - The Essex Green

I don't mean to give Merge Records a hard time, but for their impeccable taste and faultless ethics, they have this teeny tiny flaw: They tend to play it safe. I mean, what's Merge's most adventurous recent signing? Destroyer? Before you get your back up, know that I've been an avid consumer of Merge product since the early 90s. We're talking loyal and long-term. At the very least, I've supplied a pretty nice desk and a couple of the more expensive, ergonomically correct office chairs to Merge HQ.

The Essex Green is everything that's right and wrong about Merge. They make perfect pop songs that are a little too perfect. The band would be the first to tell you how much they love The Mamas & the Papas. Not the edgy, disastrously free-wheeling, internally discordant Mamas and Papas, mind, but the utopian, flower-weaving, sweet harmonies and holding hands variation on said group. Take "Cardinal Points," The Essex Green's contribution to the grand tradition of psychedelic rave-ups. It reaches some glorious highs as lead singers Sasha Bell and Jeff Baron are joined by backing pals and blend their voices into an approximation of heaven on earth. Then, at about 2:05 comes the tasteful guitar solo. Yes, tasteful--a word I think you'll agree is best left out of any discussion of rock n 'roll. I don't say this very often, but these people need to do more drugs.

Warts--if you can call them that--and all, the band's new album Cannibal Sea (US, UK) is one of the best of 2006 so far. And their song "Don't Know Why (You Stay)," which has been posted on almost every mp3 blog (do a search on Hype Machine if you haven't, for some wacky reason, heard it) is surely song of the month. Also, if you go to Essex Green's MySpace page you can download an exclusive live track of "Mrs. Bean" captured at Chicago's own Schuba's.

Ok, that was more verbose than I'd hoped, but I wanted to mention a couple other newish songs...

The Clock - The Rogers Sisters

For the longest time (three months), I thought The Rogers Sisters were a country duo. Neither country nor duo, the band at least boasts a pair of sisters. They sound like X, if X were twentysomething Brooklynites living in the double oughts and on nodding terms with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. At their best ("The Clock"), guitarist Jennifer Rogers and bassist Miyuki Furtado trade convincing John and Exene-style snarls and drummer Laura Rogers pounds out defibrilating thumps. At their less-than-best: The Rogers Sisters still have a beat you can dance to. From Invisible Deck (US, UK)

The Pink Ink - Shooting At Unarmed Men
Love Song For a Mexican - McLusky

McLusky was one of the most obnoxious indie rock bands to achieve any level of success in recent years. Purveyors of schoolboy bullying, puerile double entendres and abrasive, three-chord Neanderthal stomps, there was little to recommend them aesthetically. Except this: They were catchy and they were funny. Really fucking funny. Funny ha-ha, clever funny, choke on your beer funny, funny, I hadn't thought of that, funny. Consider some of the album titles: McLusky Do Dallas, My Pain and Sadness is More Sad and Painful Than Yours and the grand dame of them all, The Difference Between Me and You Is That I'm Not on Fire. Why the old news then, McLusky's dead and buried, right? Yes, but Shooting At Unarmed Men, ex-McLusky guitarist John Chapple's little project, is alive and thrashing. And as with McLusky, while you bob your head vigorously you'll want to keep some distance from the lyrics, though a word here and there will make you smirk and roll your eyes and imagine things way dirtier than these guys probably ever intended.

The McLusky camp has two newish things for you to buy: Unarmed Men's Soon There Will Be... (US, UK) and Mcluskyism (US, UK), a three-disc greatest "hits"/odds and sods collection.

Monday, March 20, 2006

No Hits 3.20.06


Off The Page - Kahoots

If Kahoots sounds a little out of time, not quite with it, you can chalk it up to the fact that they're from Martha's Vineyard--a place about which most of us think "vacation spot" not "indie rock hotbed." I've never spent a winter in a summer resort, but I sort of imagine boarded-up buildings, lonely, windswept streets and a gray spitting sea, mocking island-dwellers for their isolation from the mainland. In such a place there'd be little to do but huddle indoors over guitars and bang out warm, jangly pop tunes.

In fact, a galloping backyard romp like "Off the Page," with it's gleeful, low-fi production evokes The Clean and other legendary bands from that island on the opposite side of the world where sheep outnumber humans 20 to one.

While Kahoots has been together for ten years and released six previous albums, they recently put out their first, self-titled, EP for I and Ear Records (home of Mazarin). You can stream it on their MySpace page, then buy it on iTunes. (You will want to buy it.) Kahoots is set to release a full-length album, Fourteen Ghosts, April 25 and play a bunch of New England club dates this spring.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Clear a path

Linda Draper

Linda Draper is a New York singer-songwriter with a candid, knowing voice that bobs and soars, dodges and confronts in a natural conversational fashion. For all her frankness, Draper never comes across as brash or cynical. More like the shy girl down the block who usually averts her eyes a little, but every once in a while greets strangers with a broad, unselfconscious smile. Hordes of big-city musicians trudge the muddy new-folk path these days, shiny new acoustic guitars and hippie affectations in tow, and I don't much bother with them. But Linda Draper is worth clearing the way for.

Seven Black Crows - Linda Draper

One Two Three Four - Linda Draper

It's Not All About Love - Linda Draper

From One Two Three Four (Amazon: US, UK and iTunes) and Patchwork (iTunes).

Friday, March 17, 2006

The unfolding

Irma Vep #3 by Joe Carey

The Surrealists of the 1920s created what they called “unfilmable” scenarios, marked by vivid and shocking juxtapositions (think the famous razor scene in Un Chien Andalou (1929)), murky longings taking on real-world manifestations, and a wash of subconscious imaginings--a phantasmagoria tugging at the edges of visual representation.

There is a movie unfolding in my head that reminds me of these unfilmable, if not unknowable, worlds. Ever since my first introduction to Neko Case (and Her Boyfriends), courtesy of Jon, I’ve had the not-so-secret wish to happen upon Chicago’s
The Hideout one night and catch an impromptu performance. These things happen, I’ve been told, though now with the release of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (US, UK) and the much-deserved swelling in popularity it has unleashed, my guess is those days are long gone. In my version, David Lynch-inspired crimson red curtains frame the crooked stage, creased and bunched like crushed velvet. Plastic lawn lanterns dangle along the walls, throwing rippled, multi-colored light over the shadowed crowd. Oh, and an air conditioner reliably hums and drips in the far corner, a few strands of tinsel from last year’s Christmas tree fluttering from its bent vents. You get the picture.

And now, with Confessor, Ms. Case has pointed out the glaring absence of, and at the same time, delivered the crucial centerpiece: "Star Witness." It’s the perfect song for this movie in my head, gently but willfully rolling on and on, spacious and lonely, as if breathing in the humid air of a (doomed) mid-August night. From the first hesitant bars, through the lazy, assured swish of the snare and Case’s at first sharp and twanged then lullaby-ready vocals, right down to the last, pseudo-haphazard strains of a distant piano, each song element feels loosely joined, like memories themselves. And that’s to say nothing of Case’s quintessential lyrics: ripe with roadside pathos, everyday details (“there’s glass in the thermos and blood on my jeans…”) and, yes, ineffable mystery.

Forgive me my excesses, but this is as five-star as it gets.

Star Witness - Neko Case

Knock Loud - Neko Case

"Knock Loud" is from Canadian Amp

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Eva and Eva

Repetition Nineteen III - Eva Hesse

Autumn Leaves - Eva Cassidy

People Get Ready - Eva Cassidy

It's too easy to posthumously read portentousness into an artist's work, particularly when they died tragically young. And I don't use that much-abused word, "tragically," often or lightly. Generally, I take a Aristotelian view of the concept, but I think an extremely talented woman dying at 34, at the peak of her talents, is tragedy by any definition.

Eva Hesse was an American painter and sculptor of wonderfully strange and beautiful works at a time and within a movement (1960s minimalism) that could be stern and frigid. Her best known pieces from the late 60s are fleshy, organic shapes, made with temporally unstable materials such as latex and rope. They're both playful and complex, psychologically penetrating and serious. Art historians, and anyone who knows her oeuvre and history, have made much of the fact that many of the fragile or gnarled, human tissue-like forms were created during the period she was diagnosed with a series of brain tumors. Following several surgeries, the tumors returned and Hesse died in 1970.

Is it a fallacy to use this kind of biographical information when interpreting works of art, and, more importantly, assigning value? I happen to think not--that whatever facts, surmises and personal feelings you bring to a reading are as valid as any rigid theoretical apparatus. But then, in whichever corner you stand the work of Eva Hesse is unassailable. I don't remember if I knew her story before I saw her art (it was a while ago when I was in college and knee-deep in art history) but I remember that seeing it in person, I was astonished by its craft and visceral immediacy, by the fact that it looked like nothing I had seen before. Knowing her training and process lent intellectual heft, but learning the biographical details made me love the work.

I was familiar with Eva Cassidy's story before I heard a note of her music. An extraordinarily versatile, virtually untrained vocalist, she performed jazz, soul, pop, folk and gospel standards in clubs around the Washington D.C. area to local acclaim, leaving only one solo live album when she died of melanoma in 1996. After her death, a BBC DJ played her rendition of "Over The Rainbow," opening a floodgate of interest in the singer and triggering a stream of patched-together releases.

At this juncture, I should say that this isn't normally my thing. I bought the Songbird CD (US, UK) as a gift for my mom, who loves female vocalists of the adult contemporary variety. But Cassidy's voice is so generous, so moving, that it transcends any notion of hipness or authenticity. And without forcing it, you can hear a sadness in her songs, but also something that says this: I may not be here long, but I'm going to make the most of it while I am.

It's life-afffirming, but is it art? Or do I allow biography to spin the music? I really couldn't say. And I don't know that I care.

If you're interested in learning more about Eva Hesse, I highly recommend Lucy Lippard's book (US, UK). Later this spring, Yale University Press releases a paperback catalogue for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's 2002 Hesse retrospective (US, UK).

Untitled, 1970 - Eva Hesse

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Curse of the import-onlys

You See Colours - The Delays

This ever happen to you? You read an album review on New Music Tuesday (say, on Stylus for Delays/You See Colours). It sounds like something you want right away (maybe a "B" doesn't scream "buy" to you, but you know what you like, ok?). You figure maybe you'll swing by the record store on the way home from work (oh, but wait, you have to get back quickly so you can spend the evening on a project for an old freelance client, even though you're exhausted from the eight-hour grind of the regular paying gig and can barely stand the thought of staring at words on paper for another three hours). So scratch that, you'll just download the album off iTunes. But then, horrors of horrors, you run smack into the import-only wall! Damn Stylus and its trans-Atlantic mission. That Delays review was meant for its U.K. readers, the album isn't even out in the States and who knows when it will be, if ever.

So that last part was an exaggeration, but you get the idea. Let's console otherselves with something excellent from the Delays previous album, Faded Seaside Glamour (US, UK), shall we?

Long Time Coming - Delays

Something that is actually available in the U.S. (on iTunes anyway, even though it appears to be an import CD) is Amusement Parks On Fire's Blackout EP (US, UK). I'm not entirely sold on this band since I'm not sure it adds anything to the already overcrowded field of drone n' fuzz post-shoegaze (I've decided that from now on, just for laughs, I'm adding a "post" to every subgenre that's been around for at least 10 years. It seems scholarly.) But I like how the strings in "Solera Reina" swell and swell then refuse to ebb, so that you can sort of imagine the band bailing water with leaky buckets in a slowly flooding basement.

Solera Reina - Amusement Parks On Fire

A kind soul who knows I am a bit of a Will Oldham and Will Oldham cover fan sent me Tract Records' tribute album, I Am A Cold Rock , I Am Dull Grass, this past weekend. I had a hard time moving beyond Pinetop 7's astonishingly lovely cover of "A Minor Place." It's been on repeat ad infinitum.

A Minor Place - Pinetop 7

Monday, March 13, 2006

No Hits 3.13.06

All Things Lucid

Chicago - All Things Lucid

A Crooked Line - The Interiors

Lullaby (Sleeping, Dreaming) - Ostrich Eggs

When spring finally arrives, a girl's thoughts turn to ... praising the city she spent the entire winter bitching about. Yes, time to celebrate Chicago:

"Chicago" from All Things Lucid is a rootsy, acoustic ode to urban aimlessness. Recalling the voices of a thousand troubadours before him, Miles Benjamin sings "Put on your Chicago face and smoke another cigarette/Sold my soul to a retail store so I could pay the rent/And oh mom I got drunk again/But don't worry mom cause it's just a city trend." Sure, it's a familiar, even prosaic refrain. But it nails the contradiction of young big city life: You have to feign sophistication when you're just a frightened, confused, lost kid. And that realization can seem awfully profound at the time.

"A Crooked Line," on the other hand, is rather unfamiliar. In a sea of samey indie rock songs, it has a refreshingly distinct sound--tight, throbbing bass and sharp, clacking beats. Though obvious predecessors might be some of Fugazi's spartan compositions, the key to this track lies, I think, in The Interiors' professed interest in African rhythms. The Chicago band's no one-trick pony, either. If you go to their MySpace, you can stream "Rush Street 1970," a loose and bluesy, yet driving, song where singer Chase Duncan unleashes rock star-ready howls.

Ostrich Eggs, I can pretty confidently state, will never be rock stars. But they could find a place in that niche of music history shared by other naive oddities like The Shaggs and Jad Fair. I know nothing about them other than what I can conjecture from the photo on their PureVolume page of a nice-looking young couple sitting at what appears to be their dining room table. You can imagine them as former city-dwelling hipsters who migrated to Skokie to buy a house and have a baby. Setting "Lullaby" aside and listening to their other tracks, the Hedstroms can't really play or sing. But reinsert this odd and strangely moving number into the equation and you begin to imagine why they might fashion themselves as musicians.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

In the clutches


Ever get the feeling the universe is trying to tell you something?

A couple evenings ago there were a few hours before Amy, another friend and I, on a night with many shows of note here in Chicago, were going to see Orthrelm (much to Amy's dismay: her apologies, Mazarin), and I had Jandek on Corwood sitting around, so why not chance an experimental music double-feature?

Before the movie, I knew of Jandek only by reputation. My primary impression as one uninitiated: the film focuses on Jandek's reception among some pretty sophisticated listeners, nearly all of whom are overwhelmed by the music and (lack of) backstory. Despite knowing better, each gets involved in speculating about what the hell this shit *is*. Of course, such a game always ends with you projecting your own business onto this artfully crafted blank slate (sitting in their shoes, I'm sure I'd do exactly the same thing; watch me in a moment) but the sheer resolve required to behave like Jandek speaks to a vision that demands decoding, that demands explanation. His motivation could be insanity or access to some heightened moral state but if you detach for a moment, it's certainly possible that what you are witnessing is an art project of the highest order playing out over decades crafted with a uncommon combination of skill and will.

Jump ahead a few hours and watch me twist myself into the same knots as those Jandek devotees in the film. The three of us have arrived at the show and the two guys, Mick Barr (guitar) and Josh Blair (percussion), from Orthrelm have taken the stage. Their album OV has had me in its clutches since hearing it on WNUR a few months ago and I was really looking forward to the show. After a few minutes of listening, all I could think was: this is *religious* music. It's communal, it's transcendental, it's... Jon overwhelmed and losing his ability to talk sense.

OV (sample) - Orthrelm

OV (and the show, which was a reproduction of the album slightly sped up (and I'm only somewhat confident in that... there's much to take in), is indeed a combination of skill and will, nearly a straight hour of impossibly fast, repetitious guitar phrases with equally ornate drumming, but it begs the question: what exactly am I witnessing? Certainly shred for shred's sake until, after a few minutes, with barely a change, through sheer perseverance, it isn't any more. My best guess at this moment is that OV is absolutely pointless to play and absolutely pointless to listen to (which you could say about any damn thing but this music's extremity brings this into relief). However both the creation of this stuff and putting yourself in a place to receive it, the effort it takes, makes for something more. At the very least, Orthrelm taught me a different way to listen.

A side note or two about the show: I was standing in line at the merchandise table after the show and the young kid ahead of me, having bought an album, said something to astonishingly now-composed Josh Blair, blindingly brilliant Orthrelm drummer: "That was amazing. We need more shows like this in Chicago!" Josh was polite, started helping me, and therefore didn't give the only possible response: There are no other shows like this. I can hear Amy thinking: Thank God.

Voltage, a Chicago band on Flameshovel, opened. While I think some of the stuff on its album, Building the Bass Castle, Vol. 1, comes off as a little forced, it made more sense in performance. There's a harmonious howl on one track in particular that drove me crazy in my living room that made sense as a humorous touch at the Beat Kitchen. Here's a Voltage track from a Flameshovel sampler:

" " - Voltage

Now, the final indefatigable voyager the universe sent me. Ended up not going out after the show so I got up a little early and took in Grizzly Man. Comparing these musicians to Timothy Treadwell doesn't sit quite right with me, but I do think Werner Herzog makes a very astute point: whatever else you think of the Grizzly People project, when Tim becomes synonymous with his own audience, when the videos he creates become his confessional rather than a chronicle, the appeal of implacable resolve begins to fade. This distance, managed so well by Jandek and Orthrelm (who aren't sure they'd listen to themselves), preserves appeal despite their extremity.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Where you won't find us now


It's 65 degrees and sunny! Those of you living in more temperate climes will greet my giddiness with a bemused yawn. But trust me, when you survive yet another cold, grey, blustery, miserable Chicago winter, you hail the first day you can leave home without heavy wool coat, scarf, hat, gloves and boots with pure, unfettered glee.

Speaking of warm weather... No one associated with this blog is going to South By Southwest. That's probably obvious, but I thought I'd mention it. We're too unambitious and amateur to even attempt to mix with industry folks. (Though one of our number may be going to Coachella and because it's on our doorstep and we'd be incredibly lazy not to travel the eight miles to get there, we should all make it to the Fork Fest this July.)

However, If I were going to SXSW, there are a couple, still small, indie pop, bands I'd try to see because a) they're good, and b) they haven't already been hyped to the rafters. I've mentioned all of these in the past and I'll probably keep talking about them until you actually buy their records. So buy their records, ok? And if you're going to be in Austin next week and get a chance to see them, I'd love to hear about it.

Scissors For Lefty : San Francisco boys who recently went from unsigned to the Rough Trade roster (yay for them!). Orginal post.

Marsha - Scissors For Lefty

Envelopes : Twee-ish Swedes and Frenchwoman based in Britain. Original post.

Massmouvement - Envelopes

The Kingdom : Portland pop band that I think is going to be huge. Original post.

Love Is My Nation - The Kingdom

Demon, Envelopes (Amazon: US, UK)
Bruno, Scissors For Lefty (CD Baby, iTunes)
Unitas, The Kingdom (Arena Rock, iTunes)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Around the world in three minutes

Cristina Branco

Cristal (Tinha Algum Vinho Ainda) - Cristina Branco
I expected something different from Portuguese fado singer Cristina Branco when I saw her last Saturday at The Old Town School of Folk Music, something more authentic. That was my mistake, of course--an American unreasonableness that demands quaint adherence to tradition from the cultural ambassadors of those smaller European countries. What Branco does is put a contemporary spin on traditional folk music. And if when accompanied only by piano, Branco occasionally veers into Norah Jones territory, she also sings with a sly confidence that reels you in and insists you rest awhile. Branco's even better when the tasteful Portuguese guitar's got her back. From Ulisses.

Dread Effigy - Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice
Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice are in love with the sound of sound. And by that I mean, noise. And they're willing to plumb any depth to find said noises--the bottom of Appalachian ditches, the backs of Mississippi Delta blues clubs, the endpapers of ancient hymnals. "Dread Effigy," from the group's latest LP, is a little more coherent than some of their products, seeing as it offers actual, uh, structure. I mean, for all those low groans buried in the mix (sounding like, what, mating whales?), this is a pastoral folk song. And, dare I say it, a pretty one. From Gipsy Freedom.

The Golden Boy - Shelby
Laugh, giggle, titter all you want at neo-new wave. The joke's on you. Deep hooks, driving guitars, shimmery synths, heavy high hat action and a yearning white boy croon, this is the song you'll download and remember. From The Luxury of Time.

Music Television - Tom Vek
Here's where Tom Vek eliminates the middleman, releasing a chunky remix without troubling himself to record the original. This plays to his strengths, actually, which never have been lyrics, but arguably (I'd argue, anyway) are beats. Ready-to-wear, out-of-the-box, dance friendly, kind of retro--if it's not too soon to freeze-dry and frame the early 90s. From Nothing But Green Lights EP, iTunes.

And speaking of music television... Sydney techno-pop duo The Presets get your ass in gear good and proper. Like an artifact from the mid-80s, this extremely self-referential video has first generation video games, fatuous dance moves and a singing fetus in utero. Yes, a singing fetus:

Are You the One, The Presets
Real Windows Quicktime

The Presets are currently touring North America, including a bunch of shows supporting Ladytron.

Finally, while I'm not normally one for dreamy soundscapes, the former film geek in me loves a single-cut clip with an elegant tracking shot that eerily captures the silent spaces of a hectic sushi restaurant. During the course of Shrift's first album Lost In a Moment, British vocalist Nina Miranda sings in English, French--and to bring things full circle--Portuguese:

Lost In a Moment, Shrift
Go to Shrift's artist page, see left sidebar.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

i('m)Pod addicted

I just finished
iPod, Therefore I Am by Dylan Jones. It was an entertaining look into iTunes and this enchanting memory box that has been a more consistent part of my life than most people in the past two years. (Apologies to those who will take offense to that statement.) Jones also recounts his own personal musical obsessions, citing plenty of British clubs and records I've never heard of. The book ends with "The iPod's Greatest Hits: 100 Songs You Absolutely Must Have in Your Life." I agree with some of his list: "Theme from Shaft by Isaac Hayes," "High and Dry" by Radiohead, "Pastime Paradise" by Stevie Wonder, "Don't Worry About The Government" by The Talking Heads, "Grace" by Jeff Buckley. But there are "must haves" that are absurd: "Scar Tissue" by Red Hot Chili Peppers? "Rough Boy" by ZZ Top? "New York Minute" by Don Henley? "Beautiful" by Gordon Lightfoot? It's a good thing this list appeared at the end of the book and didn't compromise my reading experience.

As Dylan praised the infinite number of playlist options and third-party accessories, I realized how much time I spend with my iPod. I have the 40GB click-wheel, but I have to constantly pull albums off to fit that week's purchases. I try to keep 1 GB open for the songs I grab online via blogs or band sites. That only (only?) leaves 38-ish GB for music. Certain records never leave the iPod (London Calling, My Aim Is True, Blonde On Blonde, Songs In The Key of Life, What's Going On etc., etc., etc.), but I sometimes have to decide if I really like all of Nevermind or Blur's 13 and, if not, which tracks do I keep and which are relegated to the mp3 hard drive.

All the iPod banter made me curious about my own unnaturally white music box.

First song I put on my iPod:

For No One - The Beatles
This was my favorite song when I first (?) heard it at 13 and has remained one of my favorites. It's certainly my favorite of the Fab Four, this buried track from Revolver. A stunning horn melody and beautiful storytelling, this song taps into something emotionally that I can't explain. For purely principle reasons, it had to be the first song I added. (This mp3 isn't posted for a number of reasons. I highlight one: everyone should own this record. Don't get scattered mp3s to sample from music blogs--go purchase this entire record immediately.)

Last song added:

Things The Grandchildren Should Know (Live) - Eels With Strings
Not one of my favorite Mark Oliver Everett tracks, but the sentimental nature of the song works well with the string section and closes the dynamically-vacant new record well.

Last played song:

Marching The Hate Machines (Into The Sun) - Thievery Corporation, featuring The Flaming Lips
The beauty of the shuffle option--I'm not sure I've listened to this song since the day I uploaded this record. It's an unusual opening track, but quite pleasing actually. It's not the best listening choice when one is jogging (which is how I heard it today) but I like the unexpected pairing of these artists.

Most played song:

Bluebird of Happiness - Mojave 3
This stunning nine-minute opus gives me such a level of comfort and peace, I'm not surprised it has been played more than any other. The repeating phrase "Gotta find a way back home" is so uplifting and yet leaves me longing. Strange--that's sort of what the iPod does to me also...

Revolver, The Beatles
Eels With Strings Live at Town Hall, Eels
The Cosmic Game, Thievery Corporation
Spoon and Rafter, Mojave 3

Monday, March 06, 2006

No Hits 3.6.06

My Latest Novel

The Not So Reverend - My Latest Novel

My Latest Novel is a Scottish band that's beginning to receive favorable attention and comparisons to The Arcade Fire and countrymen Belle & Sebastian (though to these ears are less ornate than the former and less precious than the latter). Bleak optimism or melancholic cheer--something oxymoronic like that--is the prevailing mood, which you'll hear in abundance in the band's latest single, "The Not So Reverend." This boy-girl duet, buttressed by lonely violin, discreet percussion and a short bout of whistling, also seems typical of My Latest Novel's no-frills approach to orchestral pop.

The band's ten-track debut LP, Wolves, is available through its UK label Bella Union.

"Sister Sneaker Sister Soul"
High Low
"The Reputation of Ross Francis"
High Low

Saturday, March 04, 2006


Sebadoh - Beauty Of The Ride

Riding - Sebadoh

From the "Beauty of the Ride" 7" single on Domino.

One of my all-time favorite covers, Sebadoh's melodic, indie rock version of Will Oldham's "Riding," was trapped on vinyl until a few weeks ago. I shared this as soon as I could.

Covering someone as self-conscious and aware of the possibilities of his own music as Oldham, may seem like a fool's errand. After all, Oldham recorded a couple fine and very different versions of the song. But Sebadoh's cover also makes good sense. Bassist Jason Lowenstein had already contributed his own creepy paean to incest ("Sister") to Sebadoh's Bubble and Scrape. And not long after "Riding" was broadcast as a BBC session in May, 1994, Lowenstein would work with Oldham on Viva Lost Blues.

But what's really essential about the Sebadoh cover--besides those trademark power chords--is Lou Barlow's vocals. Both a curse and a blessing, Barlow always sang with a sincere, perfect-pitched tenor (as much as he sometimes tried to disguise it for the sake of punk rock cred). Nothing could be more different from Oldham's disturbing redneck-preacher-on-Qaaludes delivery. Barlow, of course, had his own demons. But he usually held them in reserve for live show temper tantrums and long-running feuds with former bandmates.

Riding - Palace Brothers

Riding (electric version) - Palace Music

Friday, March 03, 2006

I sought a theme...

Euros Childs

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles and a broken can...

"The Circus Animal's Desertion," W. B. Yeats

Circus Time - Euros Childs

Death Of A City - Ken Stringfellow

For many years, Euros Childs was a member of critically acclaimed, somewhat commercially disappointing Welsh band Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. I'm no great authority on GZM, but a friend who is hails them for their "classic eulogization of childhood," which seems to drill straight to the heart of their significant appeal. With the band on hiatus, Childs has--like many members of long-time groups suddenly left to their own devices--released a solo album, Chops (US, UK). "Circus Time" is a somber piano ballad, and despite the musician's recent statement that his solo work isn't meant to be "heavy" or "introspective," the track seems built on a bed of disillusionment. Childs marks his paces from disorientation (Had enough of the city), to temporary refuge in a familiar trope of innocence (Won't you slip with me to circus time?), to a kind of regret and resignation (Oh golden sun, my life had just begun). It's hard to grow older, sad to realize that the usual tricks have lost some of their magic.

One of the things that's intriguing about "Circus Time" is its general sense of drifting--its unspecificity of place. In his piano ballad, "Death Of A City," Ken Stringfellow, former member of another well-loved but generally undersold 90s band, The Posies (as well as stints in REM, Big Star, Minus 5, etc.), also sounds lost but better able to map his disappointment. In a literal sense, "Death Of A City" is an environmentalist screed (Nothing is able to live in this town/So you go out late and look for the stars/All you see is orange on the clouds). But on another level--and with greater theatrics than Childs' song--it taps a personal estrangement, too (the frequent refrain of Oh, you're over and done with now).

"Death" appears on Stringfellow's third solo record, Soft Commands (US, UK).

From Childs' and Stringfellow's latest band efforts:

How I Long - Gorky's Zygotic Mynci

Sweethearts Of Rodeo Drive - The Posies

Ken Stringfellow

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Little black egg

Organic No. 12 - Black Egg
Organic No. 12 - Black Egg, Deedee9:14

The Little Black Egg - The Nightcrawlers

Little Black Egg - The Pagans

Little Black Egg - Tarnation

The Little Black Egg - Minus 5

The first "Little Black Egg" I heard was a 1997 version by gothic Americana band Tarnation. You wouldn't know it wasn't the original. The cavernous, reverb-soaked production, chiming steel guitars and Paula Frazer's powerful Georgia preacher's daughter voice make it--for me at least--the definitive take.

The song was written and first performed by The Nightcrawlers, a Daytona Beach, Florida folk-garage rock outfit that had their biggest hit with it in 1966. But it wasn't much of a hit. While "Egg" got plenty of regional radio play upon its first release in 1965, it only made it as far as 85 on Billboard's national charts. Given the Nightcrawlers' phlegmatic execution, that's not surprising. Nice tune, you might say, effective use of four simple chords, rather catchy--particularly the sing-songy verse--but not a lot of energy. And the lyrics...

The history of pop music teems with claptrap, rot and babble, but "Egg" is nonsensical in a fairy tale manner. That is to say, it's somewhat discomfiting. Black bird eggs are uncommon (apparently Emus lay very dark green eggs that can appear black) so the "little black egg with little white specks" has a mythical--and sinister--quality to it. You could support a dozen different metaphorical readings, including the allegory of interracial sex concocted by some alarmist rubes in the mid-60s. But what has always intrigued me is the narrator's fiercely defensive stance:

I found it in a tree just the other day
Now it's mine all mine, they can't take it away.

Given childrens' propensity for imaginary world-making and adults' equal propensity for imaginary world un-making, I'd like to think "Egg" has something to say about letting children be children. Allow them to hold onto their little black eggs as long as possible. There's also these intriguing couple of lines in the final verse of the Nightcrawlers' version:

Oh bother, what can I do?
Little black egg's gonna tell on you.

(At least it sounds like "Oh, bother." I've also found lyrics online that go, "Oh goldurn, what can I do?" Whatever goldurn might refer to... )

The 2004 Minus 5 version--a faithful cover with the addition of an organ and some doo doos and ah ahs--deviates slightly with an "Oh, darling." Tarnation takes a simpler route with "Oh, my" and 80s Cleveland punk band The Pagans dispenses with the verse altogether. Whichever rendition though, the question looms: What is the little black egg gonna tell? What secret might a child reveal that is not either charming or appalling?

Other bands have covered "Egg," including The Cars and Lemonheads. If you have those tracks and would like to send them to me, that'd be swell.

More black eggs:
The Little Black Eggs, Gainesville, Florida band
"My Black Egg," from World Dream Bank
"Black Eggs from the Sky," from Fortean Bureau