Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Interview with Pinetop Seven

Pinetop Seven

Darren Richard, of Chicago-based and local favorite Pinetop Seven, was kind enough to grant us an interview recently in support of the band's latest release, Beneath Confederate Lake (Amazon: US, UK, eMusic, iTunes). Many thanks to Darren for his frank and insightful responses, including his thoughts on the band's genre-defying reputation and their liberal view of today's file sharing culture. Though no live shows are currently scheduled, we hope that will change soon.

You've been part of Chicago's musical landscape for ten years now. How much does Chicago inform your music? Because even though you've used ambient noise on your recordings there almost seems something anti-urban about Pinetop Seven, not to mention a strong Southern gothic vibe.

I don't think there's anything Chicago-specific that really has much of an influence other than it's a really conducive city for making almost any type of music. There's no shortage of musicians in Chicago, and most of them are both unpretentious and musically open-minded. There's also a lot of mutual support and cross-pollination between bands.

As has often been noted, Pinetop Seven is a difficult band to pin down genre-wise. Do you think that's in part because your reference points are as much literary, cinematic and historical as musical?

I think all of those contribute, but more likely it's the amalgam of musical styles at play that I think presents a challenge to those who look for easy categorization. Myself, along with most of musicians that have contributed to Pinetop Seven, have pretty diverse musical tastes, and listen to and enjoy everything from tango, funeral dirges, 20th century classical, Eastern European, Asian gamelan, American folk and country blues, and everything in the cracks between. More than anything else, I believe it's the diverse musical influences at play that contribute to Pinetop Seven being difficult to classify.

Compared to some bands (and record companies), you take a very enlightened view about offering free mp3 downloads on your Web site. Do you find this a effective way to reach new fans? And are you concerned about the distribution of your music online in ways you can't control--such as through blogs or peer-to-peer sites?

I'm perhaps not as concerned as I should be, I don't know. We only make select tracks available on our Web site, while the remainder of the records can be found at iTunes or eMusic. I grew up on mix tapes, used records and bootleg recordings so it'd be a little hypocritical of me to get up on my soapbox and start complaining now that it's directly affecting me. I'm not going to lose sleep over it.

Read the rest of our interview with Pinetop Seven.

Visit Pinetop Seven's Web site.

Hear Pinetop Seven:

Hurry Home Dark Cloud (alternative version) - Pinetop Seven

A Page From the Desert - Pinetop Seven

A Black Eye To Be Proud Of - Pinetop Seven

A Minor Place - Pinetop Seven

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Sweet Jane and friends

Wanna know why I think Cowboy Junkies' cover of "Sweet Jane" is better than The Velvet Underground's? Trot on over to Good Hodgkins for another collaborative post, this time on covers that outperform the original. (I am not afraid of disagreement. Bring it on!)

In addition to the tracks posted over there, I've got some prime extras: an earlier VU version that predates Loaded, Mott The Hoople's 1972 cover and a live cover from Gang of Four. If you listen closely, you'll hear Jon King and, I'm guessing here, Andy Gill, screw up the lyrics: "children always blink their eyes." Heh.

Sweet Jane (early version) - The Velvet Underground

Sweet Jane - Mott The Hoople

Sweet Jane - Gang of Four

Around the Web:

Can You See the Sunset From the Southside has listed his favorite songs of 2006 so far.

No Frontin', which for my money always has the best links (plus impeccable taste in music), points us to thoughtful articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education on "guy lit" (as opposed to the appalling chick lit genre) and, from The Guardian, a dissection of German humor. Apparently it exists.

The New York Times Book Review's food issue is out, and includes an excellent roundtable of food world luminaries on favorite out-of-print cookbooks. (Registration required.)

Also in Times Books, the best American novel of the last 25 years debate rages on. For the record, I don't have a problem with Beloved at number one. But does there have to be so much Philip Roth on the list?

Dusted's "Listed" series is one I love, but always forget to check. These are some of the good ones we've missed over the last few months: Eleventh Dream Day, Vetiver and Beirut.

Muzzle of Bees is running a series on summer songs.

If I had to submit something to the summer song sweepstakes, it would be this infectious number from power-pop band The Swims. That rave-up chorus! Those falsetto harmonies! Bliss.

We Need Lava - The Swims

From Ride of the Blueberry Winter (Prison Jazz Records)

Monday, May 29, 2006

Working titles

The Smiths

What makes a great song title? Maybe this sounds like a no-brainer. Most titles draw from the song's lyrics, so if the lyrics are good it stands to reason the title is too. But as the number of limp, thoughtless titles appended to otherwise decent tracks attest, this isn't always the case; there's art in the selection.

Some titles get by on sheer cleverness. Almost everything on McLusky's The Difference Between Me and You Is That I'm Not On Fire, for example, qualifies ("Without MSG I Am Nothing," "Your Children Are Waiting For You To Die") as do many of Grandaddy's ("The 'Go' In The Go For It," "Broken Household Appliance National Forest") and Liars' (more than I could list). Other effective titles are extremely simple, but evocative; they mark a song's mood, foretell its effect. Here I'm thinking Massive Attack's intensely physical "Teardop," or Low's alliterative "Weight of Water," which is, in fact, both heavy and fluid.

But what always gets me--and maybe it's my literature background--are titles that imply an unfolding narrative. They're long, conversational, have a direct address and seem to mark the middle of a scene. Instead of saying "this song is about x," they loosely sketch some characters, then invite you to do the work.

These are more random than exhaustive. Feel free to add.

Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before -The Smiths
There's so much interpretive space here. The speaker's the clown in every crowd, the tiresome bore, even the shy girl who has to put a disclaimer in front of everything she says. Then there's the meta aspect, the fact that you have heard this before and because it's such a fantastic song--one of the Smiths' best--you'll hear it many, many times again.

Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything - Superchunk
It's the exasperated end of an argument that's going nowhere and never will. It follows lines like "How many times do I have to tell you?" and "I thought we already decided..."

I Don't Know What I Can Save You From - Kings of Convenience
A guy with a savior complex and his desperate, needy girlfriend. But he's reached his limit. Finally. And she can't believe her ears.

Trying To Tell You I Don't Know - Freedy Johnston
One of the saddest titles of one of the saddest songs (about, as the lyrics go, selling the family farm to feed the band). Suggests profound resignation: wishing you had the answers and could make things right, knowing you're always letting other people down but not being able to do anything about it.

Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone - The Walkmen
A dramatic masterpiece of adolescent self pity. Said just prior to moving to Brooklyn and forming a band.

Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl - The Barbarians
More ha ha than anything, but there's historical context. Spoken by a scandalized suburbanite in 1965 to his long-haired, Beatles-mad son. Anticipates decades of even greater gender confusion.

Strangeways, Here We Come, The Smiths (US, UK)
Foolish, Superchunk (US, UK)
Quiet Is the New Loud, Kings of Convenience (US, UK)
Can You Fly, Freedy Johnston (US, UK)
Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Dead, The Walkmen (US, UK)
Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era (US)

Friday, May 26, 2006


Happy Days - Victor Scott

Gotta Go - Victor Scott

Flock of Seagulls - Victor Scott

Ever notice how the word pastiche is usually preceded by "merely?" Or, in the case of a wide-ranging but well-executed album, a critic might claim it "transcends pastiche." Victor Scott's Happy Days (SVC Records, eMusic) isn't mere and it doesn't transcend anything. It doesn't need to. Why would anyone make excuses for a sound collage that packs as much wit as "Remember Vibgyor!"? If "Dirty Knees" sounds like a mash-up between The White Stripes' "Blue Orchid" and Sonic Youth's "Dirty Boots," so what? It still rocks. In an age when weepy young guys have got the indie kids swooning over an imagined Eastern European past, Scott calls his Django-inspired jaunts "Chimp Farm" and "Golf. That's a positive development. And if we must sit through folky singer-songwritery stuff, shouldn't it be about getting wasted in a parking lot and offer lines like "Flowers give away their sons and daughters without guilt" ("Flock of Seagulls")? "Gotta Go," though, is the highlight of the record, the funky showstopper that in a just world would be blaring from every soundsystem on every dancefloor on the planet this summer...Oh! Did I mention there's a song called "Underpants!"?

One of the year's best for sure.

Happy Days B-Sides bonus:

The Laundromat Song - Victor Scott

Also, Take Your Medicine has created an artist-endorsed video for "Fortune Favors The Brave."

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

2 x 2

Color Green - Sibylle Baier

Tonight - Sibylle Baier
Softly - Sibylle Baier

Originally recorded between 1970 and 1973, Sibylle Baier's Colour Green (US, UK) is one of my favorite albums of 2006 so far. The German singer-songwriter put aside music to raise a family and the album's long-lost collection of songs sound like they were recorded in those stolen moments between children's naps and household chores. They memorialize, much like a Dutch genre painting, mundane domestic details--knitting, loafs of bread, cats on the knee--offering the objects of everyday life as a snapshot of a specific home and a microcosm of a larger world. The reel-to-reel tape recording is primitive, but also the perfect instrument to capture Baier's candid voice, one that communicates, as she herself names it, a "February mood."

You Tore Me Down - Yo La Tengo
You Tore Me Down - Flamin' Groovies

I don't much like Yo La Tengo. They're all head. And I'm a heart n' guts n' balls kind of music lover. (Let the hate mail writing commence!) Except, except ... for Fakebook (US, UK), a dotty, off-the-cuff collection of covers and b-sides that manages to find the humor the band usually buries under layers of earnest self-importance. Highlights include YLT's versions of Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle," (which always makes me think of Stuart Little on his miniature bike), Cat Steven's "Here Comes My Baby" and the Flamin' Groovies "You Tore Me Down." YLT doesn't outrock the San Francisco garage giants and wisely, they don't try. Instead they perform Down like a slowly unravelling relationship, a ragged male/female duet that nudges the regret and bittersweetness to the fore.

Also, I want to call your attention to a fundraiser the blog Donewaiting is doing in support of Pet Promise, an animal rescue group. I've done a lot of volunteer work in support of rescue groups and no-kill shelters and can't stress enough how vital these kinds of organizations are to reducing the suffering and unnecessary destruction of companion animals. So consider making a donation to the Donewaiting team. And if you're thinking about adopting a pet, please check your local shelters and rescue groups before buying a pet from a pet store or breeder!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I dream of Raji's

The Dream Syndicate

If you wander over to Good Hodgkins, you can read my contributions to a very cool collaborative post on live tracks that are better than their studio counterparts. I'll confess this is not my subject, so I hope I didn't embarrass myself too badly. But it was fun to think about and I always welcome the opportunity to climb out of the new music trenches and revisit older tunes I love.

In researching that live Dream Syndicate track I came across some interesting stuff about this club Raji's that I couldn't fit into the meager space allotted me. But first, let me backtrack a sec and say that if you don't own a copy of the band's Days of Wine and Roses (US, UK, iTunes), you should get it now. It's one of those essential rock n' roll documents. Let me also boldly claim that if anything on Wine makes your heart sing or spine tingle (and something should) OR if you happen to love electrifying live shows, then you should also own The Complete Live at Raji's (US, UK, eMusic).

The promotional portion of this program out of this way...Raji's was a gritty little Hollywood music venue that was popular in the 80s with such L.A. mainstays as The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns N' Roses and famously hosted Nirvana in 1990. I remember wandering into Raji's one night in the early 90s when I was living in L.A. The place was past its prime--ownership changed around then--and, truthfully, I was young and drunk and don't remember a whole lot about that night. Those were the club's twilight years and the place suffered some damage during the 1992 riots and apparently was finished off by the Northridge quake in 1994. (The first half of the 90s were a rough time for L.A.). I've read that a trendy, expensive bar in the same neighborhood has since adopted the Raji's name. Which somehow seems like an apt metaphor for the way gentrifying neighborhoods appropriate "urban grit" and "authenticity" and repackage it for yuppie consumption. Anyone who has lived in big cities over the past decade knows what I'm talking about.

More from Live at Raji's:

See That My Grave Is Kept Clean - The Dream Syndicate

And in case you don't know, Steve Wynn's still kicking as a professional musician. He did a neat interview and performed live on Sound Opinions in April. You can also stream some of his recent work and grab a couple mp3s on his MySpace. His newest album with The Miracle 3 is Tick...Tick...Tick (US, UK).

Sunday, May 21, 2006

All for a brand-new Stetson hat

A Stagger Lee Experiment

Amy has promised the fabulous from me, but I'm afraid all I can deliver in this case is an experiment.

Stagger Lee - Lloyd Price

Some songs you like, some songs must be respected whether they move you or not, and some actually conjure the old lit class saw, "all art is the product of its times, the artists that created it and its mode of production," out of thin air. It's an example of the latter I'd like to discuss and when I say discuss Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee," I mean it. I'm no expert on Price, the 50s, nor the rich history of the song's focal point, but I know enough to know that there's a multitude there that you all can contribute to.

There's plenty of context, that's for sure. In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus has an extensive footnote on Mr. Lee (what to call him?) and cites the Price version as excellent, especially the introduction, but doesn't elaborate (I should admit that I am running on memory rather than reference here; Mystery Train is one of those books you loan out and never get back). Down in the Flood's Jason Chervokas leads with Price in his John Henry/Stagger Lee podcast, but doesn't circle back and discuss it specifically. In fact, you can link endlessly on the broad subject, but, as a friend (and soon to be comment contributor I hope) said, there's an essay in this song itself.

Here's my initial observation: Dick Clark wouldn't take the song on American Bandstand because it wasn't appropriate (is there any documentation on what Dick actually said?) and got Price to change the lyrics. Certainly you don't get a whole lot more graphic than "the bullet went through Billy and broke the bartender's glass" but it's not just violent. Sure, a gun shattered mirror is a powerful closing image, but there's also the sense of the bartender, after hours, sweeping up the remnants and having to shell out for a replacement; it's his glass and, unlike in your standard myth, the actions of the heroes seem to have consequences. Usually I'd think I was pushing too hard to get here, but there's the way Price renders "bar-tender's" with a half-beat where I've inserted a dash. I don't think there's a rhythmic reason to do so (am I right?) and, in a song where every lyric is doing at least double work, the strange emphasis is worthy of interpretation.

Will the next interpreter please step forth? I'm interested in pretty much everything about this tune: how it fits in with Price's other work, the ways in which it was typical and atypical for '59, and for whether or not I'm crazy for thinking this is about the best you can get in 140 seconds of narrative songwriting.

By the way, Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" is available in a number of places, but try the excellent Loud, Fast and Out of Control box.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Holding pattern

I'm tied up with some other projects at the moment but Jon's got something fabulous to post shortly. In the meantime, we don't want to be guilty of blog neglect. So here's a short, sweet preview track from The Kingdom's debut LP expected in late summer:

Driver - The Kingdom

And you can never go wrong with a cover, especially when the pairing is as perfect as this:

Have You Ever Seen the Rain - Teenage Fanclub (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Comp time

History of U.K. Underground Folk Rock 1968-1978, Vol. 2

Hold Them In Dub - Prince Jammy
More spartan than even many works of the skeletal school of King Tubby, Prince Jammy's remix of Leroy Smart's "Mr. Smart" is a heat stroke hallucination where bellowing bass, squelchy, water-logged chords, bamboo whip beats and skittering ghost vocals come and go, swell and recede with narcotic ease. But it doesn't lull to brain-baked complacence. No, it sharpens senses, pointing here, now there, feel this, listen to that!

From Dub Gone Crazy: The Evolution of Dub at King Tubby's 1975-1977 (US, UK).

Silent O'Moyl - Loudest Whisper
To like a song you sometimes have to toss genre baggage to the curb--life-scaring accidents with stoned acoustic-guitar slingers, a primal fear of flute solos and anything vaguely Jesus Christ Superstar. So hippie folk, rock opera, prog rock--bye bye! (Don't worry, I'll be back for ya later.) "Silent O'Moyl" is the lead number from the Irish folksters' 1973 spiritual Celtic rock opera "The Children of Lir" and though there's that queasy soup┬žon of longhaired psychedelia in the bendy guitars and that lifeless kick drum that never rises to competence, if you let up on your critical faculties just a tad, you're sold by the close harmonies of the final verse. You're a convert.

From History of UK Underground Folk Rock 1968-1978 Volume 2 (out of print) and The Children of Lir (US, UK).

As A Boy - Fort Lauderdale
Track 17 on disc 3 of Guided By Voices' 16th box set of rarities? Long-lost collaboration between Ray Davies and The Who with special guest Black Sabbath? No, just some London tricksters who should know that if consistency is a virtue, they're going straight to hell. Nothing I've heard from Fort Lauderdale sounds like anything else I've heard from Fort Lauderdale, and none of it sounds like what a band called Fort Lauderdale should sound like. No matter. A good tune, even if they are taking the piss.

From Memphis Industries' It Came From Memphis Too (eMusic)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Magnetism - Mint

Your Shopping Lists Are Poetry - Mint
I should have my cred revoked for liking this (if such a concept exists in an age of bands praying to get play on Grey's Anatomy and mp3 blogs that are just shiny knobs on the marketing machine). What can I say? I'm a pop girl. So I forgive Mint their cheeseball* filtered vox and silly little synth flourishes straight outta 1984 and concentrate on that glorious chorus. The one that punches you hard in the arm, but feels like a feather, the sentiment sappy, but oh so sweet. From The Magnetism of Pure Gold (US, UK).

Stay In Bed - Pilots of Japan
Amazing where links of links of links will take you. I tripped over Pilots of Japan somehow and feel fortunate to have paused in my Web trot to sample their wares. "Stay In Bed" starts a little ho-hum, though that big rolling bassline and twangy guitar suggests something sorta special's afoot. Not to mention its evergreen theme: the sheer hell of climbing out of bed in the morning and getting your sorry ass to work on time when you've got someone entreating you to linger longer. (John Donne wrote half a dozen hits of the 17th Century on the subject.) But where things get really interesting is at 1:14, when the band hunkers down and lights a fuse of glorious noise. And then they wrack up bonus points for going out like a plane taking off. From The Plan to Reverse Time (eMusic).

*Limburger, because the band is Belgian. Heh.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Interview with Office


In the first of a series of interviews with Chicago bands we like, I sat down with (ok, emailed) Scott Masson, lead vocalist/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist of one of the city's hottest young bands, Office. Office is two guys (Masson, Tom Smith) and two gals (Erica Corniel, Alissa Noonan) making funky, fun, complex pop music. The band's new LP, Q&A, has garnered them well-deserved attention from music fans, record labels and even landed them a residency at one of Chicago's best clubs, Schubas. Among other things, I asked Scott about the band's genesis, their South By Southwest experience and their "branding" strategy.

From what I understand, Office began as your solo project. When and how did it come together as a band?

It happened very naturally. Playing music as a solo performer, armed only with a drum machine, guitar, and piano was stressful, and probably a little self-indulgent. I always knew that an "Office" ensemble was inevitable, but it was important to find the right people to work with before allowing myself to open up and collaborate.

Basically, my life slammed into a brick wall in early 2004. I moved back home with my parents in Michigan to re-evaluate my life, write songs, try out new recording techniques, and get out of the city for awhile to rest. During that seven month period of time, I discovered that Office was definitely something that I could not give up even though I thought it was probably a healthy option. Despite a few failed attempts in casting a good staff of collaborators, I felt it was important to keep developing and moving forward, so I moved back to the windy city.

Upon returning to Chicago, I immediately drafted up a plan to find a definite version of Office. Alissa, Tom, and Erica had certain resume experience that was appealing to me. They all came from either punk rock, visual art, minimalist, avant garde, pop or dance music backgrounds. How perfect, I thought! Plus, the idea of being involved with a mixed-gendered, sexually ambiguous pop project appealed to me right away. There are lots of gender-non-specific ideas about love, work, play, fear, freedom, sex, money, culture, etc. in Office's music. Why not carry this over to our collective concerns?

I love the kind of pop music you make--big hooks, exuberant vocals, detailed arrangements--but for some reason, this sound sometimes seems like a tough sell. How much do you think about commercial viability and reach?

Thank you so much. Never thought about it, actually. This style of music, contrary to popular belief, is some of the most difficult music to write outside of jazz and classical. Ten second "hooks" require a lot more patience and science than 45-second melodies that never conclude themselves.

I take pop music very seriously as a lost art form, especially after constructing 9-minute avant garde epics back in the 90s. I used to be more concerned with trying to be different, and now I know that it takes a certain amount of audacity to simplify songwriting to its purest and most simplistic elements. It also takes months and months to write a song that has a timeless appeal to it...where older folks and children can get something out of it simultaneously. I never thought there was anything wrong with that. Some people within the music intelligentsia seem to think this is wrong, or "selling out". Poor them.

Read the full interview with Office.

See Office in Chicago May 15 and 22 at Schubas, June 16 at the Empty Bottle and July 1 at Double Door.
Buy Q&A on iTunes or
directly from the band.
Visit Office's
MySpace and Web site.

Hear Office:

If You Don't Know By Now - Office

Q&A - Office

Possibilities - Office

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Mushroom Cloud

The man on the wireless cries again

It's over, it's over

Dancing With Tears In My Eyes - Ultravox

Enola Gay - Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Forever Young - Alphaville

For months, possibly even close to a year, I slept with the radio on.

It was the early 80s and America was in a deep freeze. But I didn't know it until the day an older girl, one of my friend's big sisters, already in junior high, walked us home. She and her homeroom class had visited the school's fallout shelter, and she chattered blithely about concrete walls and gamma rays, mushroom clouds and nuclear winters, taking great pleasure to inform us in a cruel aside that we needn't worry about mastering the vocabulary: We'd be vaporized, living as we did 10 miles from a major defense contractor and 30 from an air force base. And it could happen any day, any minute even. I'm not sure how the other girls took this news, but when my turn-off came and they disappeared from sight, I ran. Ran for shelter.

From then on and for what seemed like a long time, I lived with the conviction that nuclear annihilation was imminent. Even if I was just a kid, I wasn't exactly wrong. This wasn't like my girly apprehension of spiders; adults far more knowledgeable than I were certain we would never cross the millennial line. But I didn't share with anyone. I kept my fear close, folded to my chest, knotted in my gut, locked in my throat. It wasn't the sort of thing my parents liked to discuss. It was unpleasant, and besides, why worry about things you can't control?

Because kids try to control them anyway. I stayed indoors as much as possible. I bargained with God, or fate or chance of whatever I believed at the time: If the Russians don't bomb us I won't watch Three's Company tonight, If the Russians don't bomb us I'll be nice to my brother, I'll give up candy, I'll try harder in school. And I began sleeping with the radio next to my bed. So long as I could discern the hushed breath of music, the jabber of DJ, anything but the Emergency Broadcast System, I knew World War III hadn't begun yet, that I was still alive. Meanwhile, music became a companion. There had always been music in our home; my dad was an audiophile and much of the house was wired for sound. But for the first time, it was functional, not decorative. It was a comfort, a friend, a shelter. Sometimes that shelter was a home, other times a prison. Conflicts were enacted and deflated within this structure, but also nourished, sustained. I wasn't the first kid to learn the cathartic--and isolating--function of music.

Somewhere along the way--paralyzing fear isn't sustainable--I released my nuclear terror. It became background noise. And not long after, I started listening to synthpop, pinning my ear to the local new wave station, exchanging feverish letters with my music-mad English cousin lucky enough to live in the country where it all seemed to originate. The worst of the genre was justifiably lambasted for being void of content, but in retrospect, not of context. If technology was the tool of destruction, it was also a device of pleasure. If we're gonna die anyway, let's go out on the dancefloor. Plump, metronomic beats collided with lacquered synths and plaintive vocals. It was theatrical, sometimes embarrassingly so. But if you think everything about the era's popular music is a construct of costumes and poses, a "remember the 80s" themepark maintained by VH1 and a cynical culture industry, you obviously weren't there. Or you forgot.

"Dancing With Tears In My Eyes" video.

Songs about nuclear war:
In the 80s
The Guardian
The nuclear threat and anti-war songs of the 80s
VH1 anti-war songs

Lament, Ultravox (US, UK)
OMD Singles, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (US, UK)
Forever Young, Alphaville (US, UK)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

From Michigan?

If I wear the same clothes
I wore today tomorrow
Would I fool you to think
You were standing still?

Home -- Breathe Owl Breathe

When I first heard this song, I assumed the artists would be from some heavily-wooded part of North America. I envisioned log cabins and high-towering coniferous trees. I didn't envision Ann Arbor, Michigan. I assumed the only music coming out of that town would be what is usually consumed by University of Michigan students: frat-rock. The unlistenable likes of Dave Matthews Band and Jack Johnson.

But Breathe Owl Breathe? From Michigan?

What a pleasant surprise this duo has turned out to be. Creating gorgeous and mysterious music made up primarily of acoustic guitar, banjo and cello, Micah Middaugh and Andrea Moreno-Beals have landed on an organic and dusty sound that truly gives a glimpse of a growing trend in the music of West- and mid-Michigan. Their recordings, though definitely DIY home-studio quality, aren't as noisy as Mi and L'au or Iron & Wine. In fact, the vocal quality is suprisingly clear and crisp. They include a couple instrumentals on their most recent effort, Climb In, (
CD Baby) and have more earthy and less agenda-driven subject manner than a lot of their genre's counterparts. The instrumentation, though simply played, isn't safe. They take sonic risks for such natural-sounding recordings. There are tough-to-distinguish time signatures and vacillations between melodic tension and release.

Middaugh's baritone vocals remind me of that of Crooked Fingers and Smog. Moreno-Beals typically adds an octave-higher unison part, but occasionally inserts a simple and appropriate harmony vocal. The song "Cave" recalls Michigan's weather: It takes a long time to get to the sunny part and then it doesn't last nearly long enough! There's a pretty nylon string picking pattern that sits atop a disonant cello scratching for the first half before resolving and joining together. "Embers" demonstrates a freedom to allow a song to be only as long as it needs to be. It's not necessary to follow a V-C-V2-C-B-C-C form with these songs. It also introduces a wood block percussive sound and a fantastic accordion texture.

Just to accent how "non-mainstream" this duo is: I checked their
website today to find the "domain name expired on 05/04/06 and is pending renewal or deletion." Thank goodness for MySpace.

And thank goodness for music like this coming from my home state of two years now.

Cave - Breathe Owl Breathe

Embers - Breathe Owl Breathe

Cold Blooded Old Times - Smog

The Smog song is featured on the High Fidelity Soundtrack (
US, UK).

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Get out your wallets

Some short takes, fingers pointing in other directions (in the nicest possible sense) and suggestions for ways you might empty that loose change jangling in your pocket.

Contrast Podcast 6 is now available for your listening pleasure. It's all about the best of 2006, and if you've been paying attention, you already know the track I contributed. If you're looking for it, Big Buildings' Water Everywhere is now available online at CD Baby. Seriously: Be looking it.

It will surprise no one to learn that Shearwater's Palo Santo (US, UK), finally out this week, is a raw, thrilling album, one that leaves all senses, save hearing, superfluous for 40 minutes or so. But other people have said it better than I ever could. Several downloads are available at Misra.

I told you about Kahoots in March, how they remind me of my favorite New Zealand pop bands, how they're generous with the hooks, how their self-titled EP is simply wonderful. Their new full-length Fourteen Ghosts (US, UK) is similarly wonderful. If endorsements are your thing, know folks like Bob Weston and Chris Brokaw lent a hand to the record. But I think the music speaks for itself (stream more at their MySpace):

For a Haystack - Kahoots

A very nice writeup on the new Danielson album Ships (US, UK), also released yesterday, at The Camera as Pen.

A hearty thank you to Green Pea-ness for introducing me to London's Havana Guns. He's got "N.Y.C.S." I found a couple more tracks. Do something: Dance, fall in love, just don't walk away.

Vivan Los Angeles - Havana Guns

The Snake - Havana Guns

I've watched the Gilmore Girls religiously since day one. And by that I mean ritualistically, unthinkingly, a drone switching the T.V. on every Tuesday at 7:00 and sinking into the sofa. I'm not even sure I like the show, to tell you the truth. But wow, was last night worth it. Special appearances by Kim and Thurston, not to mention teenage Coco! And Joe Pernice! And Sparks? Then there was GG mainstay Sam Phillips, who you just don't hear about in the mp3 blogosphere. Like ever. Is she too mainstream? Too old? I remember a time--a several months chunk--when I listened to almost nothing but Martinis and Bikinis (US, UK).

Fighting with Fire - Sam Phillips

Monday, May 08, 2006

No Hits 5.8.06

Get Married - The Snow Fairies

Slow Death on the Schuylkill - The Snow Fairies

The Snow Fairies have a photo of a kitten nestled among flowers on their MySpace page. They also list The Rolling Stones first under "influences." Can you guess which one of these objects doesn't belong? Hint: the band is called The Snow Fairies.

These are some facts about them:

  1. Like more good bands than I count, they're from Philadelphia.
  2. Like many Philadelphians, they have a conflicted relationship with New Jersey. Viz. "New Jersey's only good for two things/Beer and bowling" ("The Stone Pony"). Later retracted in 84 things New Jersey is good for.
  3. They claim they sound like Heavenly, and they do. Often, in both senses.
  4. Yes, yes, yes, they're twee as fuck. Sigh.
  5. BUT, they write good songs. Man, they write good songs. With the exception of the icky and inexplicable "In The Kitchen" (like watching a pair of 12-year olds make out), every song on the album Get Married (eMusic, iTunes) merits repeated listen. And repeated listen.
  6. Get Married clocks in at 24:06. So you can listen to it more than twice in one hour.
  7. "Slow Death on the Schuylkill" is probably the record's "hardest," "rockingest" tune. It's about a long, bad car trip, one that may be even worse than the usual trial of heat and boredom and cramped legs. Key line: "Since '76, we've been sharing the same bad dreams/About the corner of your mom's house/That stays immaculately clean."

The Life of a Total Square - The Snow Fairies

A Different Kind of Bad - The Snow Fairies

My Dream House - The Snow Fairies

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Purple Haze - Philip Cunningham
Purple Haze, Philip Cunningham

Lila Blue - The Late Cord
Blue isn't quite right. If ever a song was a color, it's "Lila Blue" and Lila is purple. Purple in its velvet organ, bruised sound samples, in the voices reaching to part the instrumental haze, dying men grabbing for air. The new EP (US, UK) from The Late Cord--a collaboration between Texas iconoclasts Micah P. Hinson and John Mark Lapham--is all cusp of netherworld.

When I Come Around - The Coctails
Every review of the The Coctails final, self-titled album (US, UK), refers to it as "autumnal." Every one! Autumnal, of course, is code for mature and melancholy. It also says resigned, and, when the intent is derogatory: worn, tired, on its last legs. So yes, this, the record's lead track, is brown, occasionally leaching to sepia; a photograph of 2 a.m. in an empty bar. Diffident guitars call half-heartedly to one another, a clarinet paces in the shadows. But then something happens at 2:11, a rose-tinted falsetto rises, "I come out of the night/ I come into the light." A canary in the coalmine, singing pink.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Out of the woods

Chas. Mtn.

I should have said this Monday, but big ups to Jon for carrying the weight of the blog last week. I needed the break as various and sundry --the paid job, the search for a new "career" and all the little blooming, blossoming, sprouting allergens--have been sucking the sap from me. Even now I can't claim to be fully back, but slowly, slowly...

Something musical has got me all giddy and spring fluttery, though. Remember the wild men's movement? Middle-class white guys banging drums in the woods and getting weepy about their daddys? Maybe if they'd had these two Massachusetts boys who call themselves Chas. Mtn. supplying the music, wild men would be more than a cultural footnote. On their messy, spectacular album Hugs (US, UK), Chas. Mtn. kick up cathartic everyman energy with irritated, glitchy techno-folk, confused, droney prog murk and dozens of other sounds to sketch universally uncomfortable moods. Dirty and disoriented/ing, the song "Deep Safety" could have been recorded anytime in the past 40 years by hippies or hipsters, idiots or savants. Or, in this case, slightly touched, partly tame wild men tapping hurts, kicking up psychic leaves, proffering ragged handclap beats and a secret language of fury and wonder.

Deep Safety - Chas. Mtn.

Our Wild Disease - Chas. Mtn.

"Our Wild Disease" is one of several tracks, album and demo, for download on Chas. Mtn.'s MySpace.

Ever since I suffered through Mona Lisa Smile (run! hide!) on cable a few weeks ago, I've had Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?" lodged in my noggin. Allmusic logs 252 appearances of the song by everyone from Chet Baker to Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra to Sarah Vaughn, Regis Philbin to Cher. Alison Kraus sings the version in the movie, and since I'll be damned if I'm going to pay money for the soundtrack, a couple other super renditions surely will do ya:

What'll I Do - Ruth Brown

What'll I Do - Harry Nilsson

Before I forget, be sure to check out Contrast Podcast 5. It's yet another fine effort from a group of international mp3 bloggers and engineered by Tim of Face of Today.

Monday, May 01, 2006

No Hits 5.1.06

Strangers on a Train

Wicky Pocky - A Hawk and a Hacksaw

Soundtrack to a retro-futurist pastiche with Harry Lime playing Bruno Anthony at the moment the phantasmagoric carousel spins onto the decayed-deco Blade Runner set. White-limbed waifs sailing from the saddles of enameled beasts into the arms of big-shouldered broads beneath sloughing billboards. Black market men hustling hypodermics in the shadows of elevated bullet trains. All speed and centrifugal force, narrative arc and dream illogic.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw is primarily multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Barnes (Neutral Milk Hotel, Bablicon, Broadcast, Beirut). Old-world accordions decked out in black lace and gold earrings are only a piece of his inspiration. When it comes to musical traditions, Barnes is omnivorous--as in love with gypsy folk as mariachi, jazz, klezmer and found sound. Surprising then that the soundscapes of Darkness At Noon (US, UK) are so seamless and coherent, accessible and generous. Give this man a film to score.

Maremaillette - A Hawk and a Hacksaw

AHAAH's work is found on the eclectic, largely electronic Leaf Label, which just made it's catalogue available on eMusic, including some nifty comps. That's where I found this:

Tits and Ass: The Great Canadian Weekend - Caribou

Dan Snaith can do little wrong in my book (Caribou's last album was one of my favorites of 2005). Even if this track's title is probably more provocative than evocative.