Friday, July 28, 2006

Making loose the ends

Steel Scissors - Duane Keiser
Steel Scissors, Duane Keiser

Scissors - Barbara Manning

Walking Stick - Barbara Manning

Don't Let It Get You Down (Paul McCartney and Wings cover) - Barbara Manning

Wherein I make my annual plea on behalf of woefully neglected singer-songwriter Barbara Manning. Of all the musicians I've talked with after shows (not so many, but when I'm in a good mood and have a couple drinks in me, I get chatty), Manning is by far the sweetest. About 10 years ago, I caught her at the Empty Bottle and I've never seen anyone so visibly thrilled with her reception. Apparently, she and touring partner Chris Knox had played some other Midwestern burg the previous night to a sparse, indifferent audience. But that night in Chicago the house was packed and bubbling with goodwill. Manning praised my recently adopted hometown--nice, since I'd so often (and frequently since) heard the opposite about chilly Chicago hipster crowds. But the greater pleasure was watching such a fundamentally modest person unabashedly bask in the warmth of fans. Self-effacement, unfortunately, doesn't get you very far in the music world, even in (especially in?) independent rock. And thus she's been overshadowed by musicians who, I suppose, play the game better.

A couple recent events give me hope more folks will hear Manning and discover how wonderful she is. Rough Trade has included "Scissors" on its just-released Singer Songwriter, Vol. 1 collection (US, UK). And cool kids The Harvey Girls pay the song tribute on their new covers album (the free download also includes covers of The Flaming Lips, Bad Brains, Daniel Johnston, Blue Oyster Cult (!) and Billy Idol (!!)).

While you're investigating Barbara Manning's back catalogue (Amazon: US, UK), consider also these yummy records just released: The Knife's Silent Shout (US, UK) finally made it to the U.S., as did Archie Bronson Outfit's Derdang Derdang (US, UK) and Scritti Politti's White Bread Black Beer (US, UK). I'm enjoying Headlights' glossy waves of synths in Kill Them With Kindness (eMusic) and am still mulling over White Whale's WWI (US, UK). (I think I like it, but this one could go either way.)

Words Make You Tired - Headlights

We're Just Temporary Ma'am - White Whale

The album that's really got me giddy, though, is Tap Tap's Lanzafame from Catbirdseat Records (offshoot of the blog). Like Figurines, or perhaps Wolf Parade without the keyboards, it's well-written, impish garage pop. I ordered the special limited edition of the CD (bound in my favorite color, green) and it's gorgeous. Plus, there's a bonus disk.

Come On Feet - Tap Tap

So um, this is just to say. . . I'm about to break for a week or so to think hard about what I'm doing here. I'm a long-time and devout worshipper at the altar of fruitless endeavors. People who know me well might even say (behind my back, of course) that I'm dilettante. And for the record, I don't disagree. But lately this has felt even more than usual like meaninglessness. And more an obligation--even a source of irritation--than a pleasure. As obsessive as I become about hobbies and as often as I lose perspective when I'm thigh-deep in a project, even I realize a blog shouldn't be making me bitter. So it's time to try to recharge.

Yeah, I think these kinds of posts are lame, too. Whiners suck. So do quitters. But I dislike it even more when blogs I frequent take off for several weeks without so much as a see ya. So this is for you terribly kind souls who come round here regularly and indulge me for some damn reason: See ya. Soonish.

Feeling So Good (Skooby Doo) - The Archies

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Breath of earth, of rock, of rot

Rusty ring - Shimone Samuel
Rusty ring, Shimone Samuel

Elliott Carter Family - Tin Hat Trio

If industrial music is the sound of abstract urban decay (lonely clang of metal on metal, echoing boom of empty warehouses), "Elliott Carter Family" is some kind of agrarian complement, evocative of the menace of abandoned barns groaning as they ease their weight into the earth, rainwater dripping on rusted metal, windows on loose hinges flap, flap, flapping in the wind.

I can't say for absolute certain, but I think the title references both composer Elliott Carter and The Carter Family. Which makes sense, as here Tin Hat Trio marks a plot where daring, atonal orchestral and modest, harmonic folk music converge (but it is something quite different, needless to say, from Copland's Appalachian Spring). Note how the plucks, patters and lurches give ground to a trundling guitar strum after about 2:30.

Piano Concerto: I - Elliott Carter

My Clinch Mountain Home - The Carter Family


Still Walking - Throbbing Gristle

Book of Silk, Tin Hat Trio (
Carter: Piano Concerto/Symphony No. 1/Holiday Overture, Elliott Carter (
Wildwood Flower, The Carter Family (
20 Jazz Funk Greats, Throbbing Gristle (

Sunday, July 23, 2006


A nice man from Stereotype Records emailed us yesterday about his label's "neo-Utopian/idiodic scheme" to give away all of their artists' tracks as free downloads, encouraging music consumers to then buy the songs from iTunes. I suspect this kind of alternative distribution model might work when a roster is as daring and interesting and good as Stereotype's. Subverting the dominant paradigm doesn't happen overnight, though, and if you're interested, you can read a little about the label's struggle with these issues.

My quick impressions of a couple of Stereotype's (anything but stereotypical) artists' songs:

Ohio - Amanda Jo Williams
At this point, it's kind of a risky move to write a song called "Ohio" that references Vietnam. Especially if you're a former fashion model. And especially if your vocal style could most politely be termed "Appalachian field recording." But the nice thing about Amanda Jo Williams is that she doesn't seem to give a damn about seeming ridiculous. She has a lack of self-consciousness rarely found this side of children's records. Take the way she belts "Ohhiiooo" with gusto and abandon, like she's trying to outshout guitar and fiddle. It reminds me of how my frustrated little brother used to capitulate to/win verbal arguments by yelling "I can't hear you, I'm not listening, la la la la la." We can always use more eccentrics.

Prozac - Ollie Byrd
Ever since Elizabeth Wurtzel went and wrote that embarrassing book, and the resulting Christina Ricci vehicle went straight to video, antidepressants just haven't had the same romantic prestige. Pity, because melancholia's actually still a rich source of entertainment, if not for the sufferer exactly, then at least for those enjoying the fruits of the sufferer's labor. "Prozac" isn't the solipsistic exercise you'd expect from it's title. Nor is it a typical bedroom recording, though it starts like it with an urgent little beat and droning voice. But about two and a half minutes in, something different happens--Byrd kicks up a craggy coda, like he suddenly decides he wants to rawk and realizes there's no reason why the form should hold him back. I like these moments. It makes the dreary sameness of mainstream indie rock tolerable.

Many more where these comes from at the label's site. But remember that if you like, you need to buy, and if these people are playing your town, go and see them (dates here). That's how most artists at this level make money.


Realizing that everyone and their cousin's girlfriend's golden retriever has already discussed this film (and noting that you're not used to me talking about cinema and may not care), I finally saw Càche last night on DVD. There's never been a section in any video store I know of called "films about films," but if it existed, that's where you'd find me. From Rear Window to Peeping Tom to The Player to Day For Night, I love critiques of the form and process, even when a film has nothing otherwise to recommend it. Which is why I don't get some of the critical (pro and amateur) reactions I've scanned post-viewing about Càche's "ambiguous" ending. Granted, this is a film rich with interpretive possibility, not just, as I've already suggested, as a discussion on voyeurism, the unreliability of visual representations and issues of spectatorship. But also as a very specific address of France's troublesome history with Algeria, hints about this whole terrorism problem, and, as my blogmate Joe (aka JC, aka "the quiet one") talks about elsewhere, of bobo values. But to read Càche as a standard narrative to be "solved" in a pat denouement is missing the point entirely. Here's a not-so-subtle hint as to why this is a fallacy: Traditional Hollywood films employ very few extremely long, extremely static shots, especially in crucial scenes. And with good reason. They make it almost impossible to tell a story. Even if it works sporadically on that level, this film is not about storytelling.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Flora & fauna

Hitty Floating In Water, Dorothy Lathrop

Jacques - Plants and Animals

David Letterman has this regular segment (or used to) called Is This Anything? He and Paul Shaffer view a performance of some kind, generally acrobatic, usually involving noise, movement, color, misdirection, then deliberate on whether it's "something" or "nothing." The show's entertainment media-critiquing mechanism is deep rooted and as effective as anything on network television, so I probably don't need to highlight how these segments participate in an absurdist theater tradition or lend themselves to Dubordian spectacle discourse. Mostly, they're just funny in an utterly stupid way. But it's that "something and nothing" that occurred to me as I heard "Jacques" by Montreal's Plants and Animals--and how permeable the line between them is. As quivering acoustic guitar dissolves into a storm of orchestrated noise I'm thinking, oh, this is nothing.
I mean, yeah, the strumming gets louder and faster and denser and more saturated. But, nothing's happening. And then ... nothing becomes something. First a moan (a human voice!), then some scale ascension and percussive punches that blur into a mesmerizing groove. And what's this? A drunk electric guitar line emerges, drums come stumbling in and it's a party! But abruptly the party is interrupted. I'll let you hear what happens next. Maybe this isn't exactly something, but it's definitely not nothing.

From Plants and Animals.

Learning The Game - Buddy Holly
Learning The Game - Leo Kottke

Whenever someone says they're looking for a good dance track I'm tempted to sugesst "Rave On" or "Oh Boy." Not to be snotty or flaunt the fact that I'm (barely) conversant with pre-punk rock n' roll. But just cuz they're fun to dance to--at least as fun as they were 50 years ago. But then there are Buddy Holly's sentimental slow-dance numbers, with their crepey skin and unsightly age spots ... Which is probably why I originally overlooked the mid-tempo rocker "Learning The Game." As it so often does, it took a cover--Leo Kottke's--to get me to hear the lovely, natural chord progressions and appreciate sad, simple lines like "When she says that you're the only one she'll ever love/Then you find that you are not the one she's thinking of." Kottke's version is probably a little too maudlin, but the original is fab.

From The Buddy Holly Collection (US, UK) and Essential Leo Kottke (US, UK).

Point That Thing Somewhere Else - The Clean
Point That Thing Somewhere Else - Kinski

Oh, what the hell, we're already talking about covers. I told Jon a few weeks ago that if I ever finished my Clean post, it'd toll the death of this 'ere blog. That puppy's been languishing in the queue for about six months. And no, this isn't it. (Though God knows I'm tempted almost every day to quit and channel my energies toward more productive activities.) I'm just going to say a couple things. About Kinski's cover: So that's what he's saying! About the original: VU art & churn + punk energy & youth + pub rock enthusiasm + pop melody + one of the cheapest-sounding recordings you'll ever hear (lo-fi by necessity, not aesthetic) = glorious noise.

From Compilation (out of print) and Semaphore EP (iTunes).

Other voices:

Bethanne of Clever Titles Are So Last Summer is participating in Blogathon 2006, a pan-blogosphere event to raise money for the charity of the bloggers' choice. To participate, bloggers must post something every half hour for 24 hours straight. For those still counting on their fingers, that's 48 posts in one 24-hour period! Bethanne is getting a little help from guest posters, and of course she needs your help with pledge money, all of which goes to support Global Fund For Women.
The fun begins the evening of July 28. Make your pledge here, now.

Molars has an odd, ascerbic song from Powers, new band of an old Liars member.

William Bowers' Puritan Blister columns are always solid. To wit:

Up-to-the-moment research would analyze not industry hangers-on but anonymous broadband pirates vying in sad forums to be the first ones to "leak" a "rip" a release months before its quaint street date. These folks often mock Sudanese refugees by using the word "need," as in: "Oh man, I need that new Lambchop."

The Observer lists the 50 most influential albums.

My vote for mp3 blog post of the year. Be sure to click on NF's link back to Hype Machine. I want to keep my man in that site's top referrer list. A small victory for those of us who refuse to post aggregator bait.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


I don't believe in posting mid-year album report cards. Some mp3 bloggers do, and if you'd like to know what they think about the year half gone, you can read it here. Part of my aversion to this exercise is practical. I'm not given to hyperbole; when I recommend something, I mean it. It comes from a place of careful consideration and to assemble a list I'm prepared to support without my usual wink n' nod requires more thought and time that I have to give right now.

My other excuse is a little more complicated and drills to the heart of why I am, as a rule (though there are always exceptions), uneasy about albums. I'm a contented product of post-modernist thought; I'm happy taking responsibility for my own interpretation. I'm not that interested in authorial--or in this case, compositional--intent or an album's participation in some metanarrative. I get out of music what I put in it and what I put in it is an amalgam of the many people I am. Yes, I'm talking about gender, class, race, blah, blah, blah, but also the vagaries of chance that exposed me to certain things and not others at times when I was, or was not, going to be receptive to them. The same goes for other listeners and their complex processes of meaning-making.

And I'm comfortable with this somewhat unstable situation. I like chaos. But chaos takes time to like, if you know what I mean. It's not a matter of finding a key under a rock, unlocking the glass case and holding the pretty, useless object to the light to better admire its thematic unity. Instead, it's a never-ending process of picking and sifting, assimilation and rejection in a shifting constellation of connections and near and wide misses. (Apologies if there are some mixed metaphors in there.) Most of the connections I make are with untethered songs. That's just how it works out.

So does all this ramble mean no albums have moved me this year, that I have nothing to recommend? They have. I have. Though the record that's had the greatest emotional resonance for me lately--David Thomas Broughton's The Complete Guide To Insufficiency (US, UK)--was officially released last December. Not so much a steady grower as a nail-studded bomb on a delayed timer, I'd heard some of it earlier in the year, thought it intriguing, then promptly left it to simmer in my iTunes library. I heard it again this past weekend. And again. And again. It's a mad, transgressive record with a vulnerable, humanitarian underbelly, and makes me think of the best narrative thread of any film I saw last year: in shorthand, "back and forth ... forever." If you've seen Me and You and Everyone We Know, you know what I'm talking about and will understand why I point to Broughton's lyrics in "Execution,"

I wouldn't take her to an execution
I wouldn't take her to a live sex show

I wouldn't piss and shit on her
Cuz I love her so,

and regard them as a similar instance of scatology transformed. Transformed, in the case of the film, by wonder and discovery and in the song, by love. But there's also a larger alchemy at play, a series of iterations and gestures that conjure more than acoustic guitar and man with high, pretty voice (even one so incandescent) typically do. Excessive and often unbordered, the record has inexplicable moments (bells that come out of nowhere, infantile wood block percussion) and says uncanny things that don't fit in any small boxes I have lying around.

Execution - David Thomas Broughton

And needless to say, it's a rare event for me to post a song and regret that I couldn't post every track on the album. Though there are only five.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Music is my boyfriend

The Hidden Cameras

Why didn't someone tell me ages ago just how much I'd love The Hidden Cameras? How I should just ignore the hype that so offends my contrarian nature and given em a whirl? These last few days I've been making up for lost time, buying old albums and regretting the fact that we're not on the list of whichever PR person is passing out advance promos of Awoo. The embarrassing thing is, I posted a Hidden Cameras track last year with some Rough Trade covers and that cover was of a Clean song. Talk about your 20 foot high billboards. Oh well, better late than never. So now Awoo is officially my most anticipated album of 2006 (due August in Canada and parts of Europe, September in the US and UK).

I'm probably already preaching to the choir here, but just in case, The Hidden Camera are pop savants along the lines of Magnetic Fields and Belle & Sebastian (for those keeping score at home, I'm not a B&S devotee, though I'm fairly down with the new one). And like those bands, THC's music is informed by a gay sensibility. Did I say informed? Ha! Try explicit gay sex! Often anonymous! Play-by-play kink! Water sports! Safe to say these songs will never make their way onto a mix CD for my mom. Not that you have to listen to the lyrics. They often get drowned in the mix, especially on THC's earlier low-fi recordings. Mostly, you're swept away by the tunefulness and drama of the productions. I like to think of a kid stuck in some intolerant backwater hearing these and feeling a little better about who he or she is.

He Is The Boss of Me - The Hidden Cameras

Ban Marriage - The Hidden Cameras

Learning The Lie - The Hidden Cameras

From Ecce Homo (eMusic, iTunes), The Smell of Our Own (Amazon: US, UK, iTunes) and Learning The Lie (eMusic, iTunes).

Entirely different. Actually, entirely different from anything I've ever posted and possibly anything you've ever heard. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but download the track first, then visit Dr. Joel's MySpace.

Ravenous Like A Tiger - Dr. Joel

Or stream from here. Dr. Joel is in fact a medical doctor. And I have it on good authority that he encourages live audiences to roar along when he performs "Tiger." As if you need further encouragement, be sure to stream "Howl Like A Wolf" and "Infinite." You will never be the same.

Dr. Joel, if you're reading this, will you marry me?

Friday, July 14, 2006

July mix: Light of the silver moon

Silver Moon - Sue Strange
Silver Moon, Sue Strange

The monthly mix thing seemed to work pretty well in June. Shall we try it again? No real obvious theme, just a semi-random assortment of tracks. Semi, because obviously I've curated the collection--selecting music that hasn't gotton a ton of (and most often no) attention in the mp3 blogosphere. As always, I'm making an unqualified recommendation for each and every song.

Download the tracks individually or grab this zip file. They'll be up for a month til I post the August mix. Enjoy and be sure to visit the artists' sites!

Silver Moon - Blitzen Trapper

Grace Fool - Cosmic Starfish

Joga/Do You Like My Music - Trick and The Heart Strings

Pep Pill - Dave Decastro

A Sea's A Sea - The Deaths

Live Oak Road - The Flower Machine

Itsuko Got Married - Bearsuit

Cats Eyes - Homescience

Birthday on Mars - Ryan McPhun and The Ruby Suns

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Telephone Pole In The Rain - Duane Keiser
Telephone Pole In The Rain, Duane Keiser

Save It For A Rainy Day - The Jayhawks

Hope - The Submarines

Famous Blue Raincoat - Marissa Nadler

Cheick Oumar Bah - Toumani Diabate

I grew up on the edge of a desert where rain doesn't fall so much as kiss its pinkie and tap the ground with it. Mostly, the thunder bellows and the lightening sparks and the rain is absorbed into a desiccated atmosphere hundreds of feet up. So when it rains in Chicago--my home for more than a decade--I'm like a little kid, I want to go outside and dance, arms to the sky! So far, this summer hasn't been very cooperative raindance-wise. But yesterday I left work early and waltzed smack into a brief afternoon tempest. When you're standing off Lake Shore Drive and the wind's blowing water laterally, no mere $10 Walgreen's nylon and aluminum umbrella is gonna protect you anyway. Might as well get wet. By the time I reached home, my summer sundress and strappy sandals were sodden and mascara dribbled down my cheeks. I stripped off my clothes and climbed into bed still damp and slightly feverish. Napping, I dreamt of rain.

"Save It For A Rainy Day" is self-explanatory; you know this song. Though I still want to explain that it fills me with strange, irrational hope even when hope is the last appropriate emotion. Some voices glow, Gary Louris' is one of those.

And "Hope" is my new crush, something the Beach Boys might have written trapped inside on a stormy day with a game of Scrabble. The Submarines are a good, engaging band--but there are plenty of good, engaging bands. What makes them a special band is their talent for detailed vocal arrangements, an attention to cascades and echoes.

What do you call any cover of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat," if not brave? Though two things trouble me about the original and I'm just going to say it: 1) Those backing vocals (egads!) and 2) that deep, oblivious misogyny. Marissa Nadler seems to have come up with her own creepy chorus of harpies (oh well), but she does make Jane feel like less an article of exchange, a mere conduit in one of the doomiest doomed relationships on record, and more of a person.

"Cheick Oumar Bah" is not about rain (it's a traditional Malian tribute to a spiritual leader), though it is entirely expressive of the sound of water gently falling. Diabate plays the kora, a stringed instrument that sort of blends a harp and lute and sounds like a more-fluid harpsichord.

Rainy Day Music, The Jayhawks
(US, UK)
Declare A New State, The Submarines (US, UK, eMusic)
Folk Off!, compiled by Rob da Bank (eMusic)
Djelika, Toumani Diabate (US, UK, eMusic)

Monday, July 10, 2006

This time just the girls

Sol Seppy

Loves Boy - Sol Seppy
At first you can't quite place Sol Seppy geographically. Breathy vocals, minimalist beats and shivery strings (the latter igniting the hearth in what could otherwise be a chilly tableau) all suggest a certain je ne sais quoi ... Gallic shrug of nonchalance. But it turns out Sol Seppy is the nom de chant of conservatory trained Anglo-Australian Sophie Michalitsianos who, before recording her solo album, was a member of the extended Sparklehorse family. She's also written music for television documentary soundtracks--not at all surprising when you consider her gift for the subtle, the ambient, the gentle, unobtrusive nudge. From The Bells of 1 2 (eMusic).

Sugar - Carla Thomas
I like that Carla Thomas is known as "the queen of Memphis soul" and also that when describing her voice critics often use words like "modest" and synonyms thereof. Is it possible for a queen to be modest? Because when I hear "modest," I think retiring, self-effacing. And perhaps what they really mean is that she sings as though she's unaware of the vast reaches of her talent, and that she knows to give her audience a little less than they want, but always what they need. Either way, she's anything but demure in this early 70s track, shedding her 60s girl-group affectations and embracing funk with regal generosity--announced by august horns, riding aloft a canopy of fat, juicy beats, stooping just a little to whisper, "Sugar, don't you spread your love so thin," in her lover's ear. From Stax Profiles (eMusic)

Boos - Annie Hayden
"Boos" is a slip of a song with no structure to speak of. Lyrically, it's restricted, with some negligible exceptions, to the words "echoing boos" repeated over and over. Doesn't sound like much, eh? But it is. And not because, as the cliche goes, it's greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, its exactly its parts' measure if you poured them into a kaleidoscope and watched them flutter and twist and blossom. In conventional terms that means the guitars dance a round of baroque point and counterpoint and Annie Hayden sings alone, then is joined at the end (unexpectedly) by a boy. From The Enemy of Love (eMusic).

Friday, July 07, 2006

The road to hell

The truth is I have way more music to recommend than time or inclination to write about it. So some of the tracks I'm about to post would, in a better world (one in which I didn't have a job that sucked the love of words right out of me), be accompanied by insightful, incisive prose, prose that made you not only hear the song in question differently, but music, hell, all sounds, in an entirely new way. Really! When I choose to be, I am that powerful.

Anyway, understand the following as a list of my good intentions:

The Left Garden - Born Heller
Originally slated for my unpatriotic July 4th post (I didn't even bother to wish anyone a happy Independence Day, but only because I totally forgot). In the sense that Josephine Foster, with her avian chirps and warbles, is a wonderfully eccentric vocalist, inclusion in that post would have have thematic logic in its column. But if you listen to this track ... it's an English folk song, isn't it? Not literally, but can't you just imagine Vashti Bunyon singing it? Still, too pretty not to share. From the self-titled album (US, UK).

Cuckoo - The Archie Bronson Outfit
Even though I posted one of their songs a few weeks ago, I intended to write a record review of The Archie Bronson Outfit's Derdang Derdang (US, UK). Truly I did. I was planning to talk about the fact that the band shares a record label (Domino) with Clinic and that its shared sympathies (60s garage rock, stalking guitars, spit-stammered vocals, general creepiness) with its higher-profile labelmate probably does it no favors. But that ultimately the comparison is unfair because Clinic is obviously about death and TABO is inarguably about sex. For whatever reason, this record still hasn't been released in the States (looks like July 25), but it's one of the best of the year.

Surrender - Aaron Hill & The Crimson Guard
I was raised to be a gracious hostess, so far be it from me to contradict one of SYF's guests. But when David included "Misanthrope" on his personal list of one-hit wonders and I went to Aaron Hill's Web site and downloaded another little swoon-worthy bedroom disco number, I had to speak up. Or I guess I should say, I should have spoken up. Or, um, I'm saying something now. I think. What was my point? (Incidentally, I only realized later after visiting Hill's Myspace that we appear to share an alma mater. No undue influence, I assure you.)

Hail Mary - Shearwater
I meant to berate people earlier in the week. Shearwater played The Beat Kitchen last Saturday and nobody came. WTF Chicago? Hey, I know it was a holiday weekend and that Shearwater was co-headlining with a band that, uh, let's just say, isn't worthy of sharing the bill with them. But the place was virtually deserted. Not that I'm going to complain about getting nice and close to the stage or about the fact that their set included many of the songs off the most beautiful album of the year, closing with "Hail Mary." I've sort of cycled though loving various songs on Palo Santo (US, UK), but that's my current favorite.

Spoiled - Sebadoh
Not that I was going to say a lot about the fact that Sebadoh III is being reissued. But it is. And I was surprised it had ever gone out of print, being a personal watershed and all. "Spoiled" is still chilling in its cool ambivalence. If you don't already own this album, ink August 8 on your calendar.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Whole other can of worms

Siamese Cat Song

We're continuing to slack around here at Shake Your Fist and have invited yet another guest blogger to do our work for us. But with guests this good, how can you possibly object?

Jeannette Ordas is the talent behind the food blog Everybody Likes Sandwiches (which isn't, just to be clear, exclusively about sandwich making). I love Everybody Likes Sandwiches for lots of reasons, but if I had to pick three I'd say, 1) fabulous recipes, 2) writing with lots of personality and 3) luscious food photography. Jeannette lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she works as a designer and does lots of other cool stuff including, as you'll read below, listening to good music.

I've been thinking a lot about what kind of music to write about for this post. Normally, I write about my daily life in a couple online journals or I write about the food I make. It's relatively painless and I feel confident about the things close to me. Writing about music is a whole other can of worms. There's an intimidation factor cuz it reminds me of all the old boyfriends I used to have who knew way more about music than I did. They knew liner notes inside out and who produced what and what song was covered by who. For me, liner notes were something I looked at when I was bored, and it certainly wasn't something I needed to study. I used to work in a record store and talking about music had an air of bravado that could be intimidating and sexy all at once. There is something kind of scary and thrilling and deeply personal about sharing your musical tastes with someone else. It's the same kind of feeling I have about seeing a potential suitor's collection of LPs ... you can almost see where the future relationship potential lies right then and there. Exposing your musical tastes can make you vulnerable, confident and passionate and that's kinda foxy. So I guess I'm just going to lay bare my heart and write about the music that moves me in some personal, meaningful way.

Women Of The World - Jim O'Rourke

It's hard to pick an all-time favorite song or even make a top ten favorite songs ever list, but this song would most certainly be up there. Jim O'Rourke took an almost goofy Ivor Cutlor song and reworked it into something that gives me goose pimples. Before my husband was even a blip in my radar, he tried to woo me with a mixed tape. Nestled between "Baby" by Os Mutantes and "Dear Prudence (demo version)" by The Beatles was this fine, fine treasure. Oh sure, I had heard the song before and liked it, but after listening to this tape I fell in love with it. And a few months later, I fell in love with Cornelius too. This is definitely one song that gives me the warm fuzzies.

New Star Song - The Mountain Goats

I first heard this song 10 years ago on a mix tape made by my friend Randy. I was instantly smitten with this singer with the nasal whine and the stop & go three-chord strut. But it was the lyrics that got to me:

I hung pictures of you from every lamp post in town
as the humidity climbed into numbers I don't care to repeat
The air was heavy and the sky was alive
and the Pacific Starlight train wasn't due in till 11:45

It had the right amounts of yearning and wanting and nostalgia that appealed to the wistful twenty-something in me, plus it mentioned Canada (which always gets bonus points). I listened to this song on repeat over and over, certain that this was the most perfect song ever written. The funny thing about a song you love is that not everyone is going to agree with you. My husband hates The Mountain Goats (and this song especially) which stems from a pre-dating outing involving Randy's Mountain Goats mixed tape, a two hour car ride, and me telling Cornelius that I just wanted to be friends. I guess I can kinda see his point ...

Erase You - E.S.G.

Tally Ho - The Clean

Train In Vain - The Clash

All of these three songs remind me of a certain period of my life. My friend Randy would DJ crazy-fun dance parties and these songs were always prominent on his repertoire. And they were always played for Kyla, Patsy and me (or at least I like to think so). We'd be a bit woozy with the local brew and we'd scream and dance and sing along to these tracks. We even developed a little dance to "Erase You" that involved some very prim teacher-rubbing-out-chalk moves and of course a flushing motion when it came to the point in the song that went "I flush you like my toilet". All this dancing and singing was very cathartic as each one of us at the time had suffered bad relationship breakups and these songs and dance parties were like the gel that kept our friendship strong and our spirits high. When Randy, Kyla and I each got married, Randy, our own personal DJ, played these three songs at all three weddings. It puts a joyful tear in my beer just thinking about it all.

Pretty Smart On My Part - Phil Ochs

Whatever Burns The Best Baby - Herman Dune

Moving away from the nostalgic memories, here are two songs that just bring a little extra sweetness to my day. What can I say, I'm a bit of sucker for wacky little songs played on a guitar and nice n' simple harmonies don't hurt either. Herman Dune is a band out of Sweden that play delightfully catchy songs that run the full gauntlet of feeling: from joy to sadness and sung with humour and without pretension. Phil Ochs was a anti-war folk singer who sang goofy but endearing songs. I first heard this Ochs song a few years ago and last year I was introduced to the magic that was Herman Dune and when I played the Herman Dune to friends, everyone said just how similar it sounded to Ochs. True enough and it just makes the day better.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Pure products of America go crazy

John Jacob Niles

Go 'Way From My Window - John Jacob Niles

John Jacob Niles was from Kentucky. Not the hardscrabble, subsistence farming part, the region from which you expect plainspoken folk singers to spring forth, but the bluegrass, horse-breeding one. His family was musical and he wrote his first song, "Go 'Way From My Window" when he was 16. In his words:

In 1908 my father had in his employ a Negro ditch-digger known as Objerall Jacket. As he dug, he sang, "Go way from my window, go way from my door" -- just those words, over and over again, on two notes. Working beside Jacket all day, I decided that something had to be done. The results were a four-verse song dedicated to a blue-eyes, blond girl, who didn't think much of my efforts. The song lay fallow from 1908 to 1929, when I arranged it and transposed to a higher key.

It's hard to imagine what the song was before, but Niles' high register--stretching into soprano range--is what makes it so unsettling. Or it may be its unclassifiableness. It's folk music, sure, conversant with ballads and songs of mountain people, but hemmed round by spirituals, dusted with early blues, informed by classical concert halls. In the 1920s, following a conservatory stint, Niles sang for the Chicago Lyric Opera. He also collected and published hundreds of American ballads (introducing America to its history as Harry Smith did), built his own dulcimers, taught school and farmed. He was a renaissance man, and a bit of a patrician. But when Niles sings in his uncanny falsetto or chokes on lines like "I'll give you back your ring," there's a hint of common madness, of shallowly buried frustration that seems to say something about the American experience if you're inclined to believe William Carlos Williams' pained assessment in "To Elsie."

From John Jacob Niles Sings Folk Songs (eMusic)

James Alley Blues - Richard "Rabbit" Brown

Greil Marcus
calls "James Alley Blues" the "greatest record ever made" and even if you don't precisely agree, you understand where he's coming from. One of only six songs recorded in 1927 by New Orleans bluesman (or "songster," as street corner musicians were then called) Richard "Rabbit" Brown, it's remarkably modern, or, to take a rockist stance: You'll find most of the germs of the music of the second half of the 20th century contained within. Marcus is vexed when one of his academic colleagues refers to Brown's recording as "the one that sounds like Cat Stevens," and yes, there's Brown's expressive vocal delivery. But really, it's his guitar playing, the zig-zagging jags of syncopation, a funny, lopsided, irregular dance. But Brown's lyrics sung through clenched teeth pull in the opposite direction:

Ah, sometimes I think that you're just too sweet to die,
And other times I think that you ought to be buried alive.

And thus you understand that this is a murder ballad, before the murder. It may literally memorialize the cruel woman who done Brown wrong, but also reads as a warning, a casual grenade tossed at Jim Crow society.

From Anthology of American Folk Music (US, UK)

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Antithetical criticism

Early Boston map

State Fair - The Shrinking Islands

Swallowed In Grace - The Shrinking Islands

Allow me to point out the elephant in the room. Over there, a little dusty, musty, smelling of lower wolves, harborcoats, maps and legends and other jangly folk-rock artifacts after a good South Central rain. Yep, it's the sublime influence of early R.E.M and you can't miss it when listening to The Shrinking Islands. In these late days, it seems churlish to bitch about this sort of thing. So I'm not gonna. Nothing's original anymore; who cares; get over it. Because The Shrinking Islands have. They produce very good songs in their own right. But while we're on the subject, this Cambridge, Mass. band's bio also mentions The Clean and The Moles--shout-outs guaranteed to win my approval, even if, IMHO, they sound little like those sainted (I have little shrines set up in my bedroom) Kiwis/Aussies. Still, if these are faves, massive props for good taste.

So what does The Shrinking Islands sound like? To borrow a line from "State Fair": "green miles on parade," or feathery guitar arpeggios, rolling, melodic basslines, thwacking beats, yearning, vulnerable vocals, slippery lyrics that seem to evaporate in the sun. The first two verses of "State Fair" are diffident, close-to-the-chest feints before the band punches out the walls, opening the song in an expansive, extended instrumental of blue skies, brown, snaking roads and hills that march to infinity. "Swallowed In Grace" is a more conventional verse-chorus-verse pop composition, with a first-rate earworm of a melody. Once heard, you can't shake it.

I didn't just cherry pick these two tracks off the band's forthcoming debut EP In The Black Carpet (in August, on Sort Of Records). Everything on the stylistically consistent record is this good. Also, if you go to the band's Myspace you can stream an excellent, more recent song, "Blood Rays," one that hints at the unexpected breaks and er, crazy rhythms of The Feelies.

Sort Of Records is a newer, Pittsburgh-based label with an all-around impressive lineup of artists. So I strongly encourage you to check out some of the other acts (including free mp3 downloads) over there. Besides The Shrinking Islands, I was struck by The Instances, label founder/manager Raymond Morin's own project (Indie Workshop has a really good interview with Morin). In particular, this lovely, acoustic fingerstyle rumination:

The Mist Covered Mountains of Pittsburgh - The Instances

Listening to The Shrinking Islands had me dredging up R.E.M's Chronic Town, something I hadn't listened to in eons. It makes me feel 16 again, spending hours lying on my stomach on my bed trying to decipher the spoken segment of "Stumble." I just looked up the lyrics. Not what I thought at all.

Stumble - R.E.M.

Find on Dead Letter Office (US, UK).


Berkeley Place is giving away one of my favorite albums of 2006, Big Buildings' Water Everywhere. And posts a slightly pugilistic interview with the band. This is exactly what I love about that blog--and I'd say this even if Ethan (Ekko) wasn't a former college classmate of mine--everything's freewheeling, even a little unhinged, and always honest in that old-school Brooklyn kind of way.

In the everybody's loss department, Angels Twenty, one of the best mp3 blogs, is taking a hiatus (with only sporadic posts anticipated). But, in happier news, makes a brief reappearance to post Erase Errata's "French Canadia" in honor of Canada Day. Happy Canada Day, friends to the north!

Finally, if you missed yesterday's interview with Chicago's fab pop band The 1900s, here's your chance to get to know them before they become superstarrrrs.