Friday, September 29, 2006


El station - Rebekah E. Raleigh
Image: Rebekah E. Raleigh

So last night, 8 pm, I'm waiting for the Red Line train at Clark and Division and a violin busker shares the tunnel with me and maybe two dozen others. A violin, which isn't so common. Typically, public transport entertainers brandish bruised guitars and the eager, intense, extroverted energy of youth. This one, though, he's middle-aged and reserved, economical in his movements. He sports a mullet, which also isn't common. Not anymore, not in Chicago, not on someone playing a violin. And he's wearing sneakers, unspoiled white ones that I suspect parted ways with box and tissue that very day.

The busker, he's playing something vaguely 19th century (restive, romantic), and he's good. Actually, really good, though his violin is shabby. I don't know violins, but I know this one doesn't sound right. And I don't know classical music (probably more than the average person, but not well enough). But I start wishing I'd paid attention when I was young, accompanying my parents to classical concerts. And right there and then that I hadn't "wasted" most of my adult life listening to "popular" music. Just because I want to know how later to locate that piece. The man's still playing when the train blusters in, and there's no time to ask. So I leave it and him on the platform. A lost fragment of sound in the city at night.

In the relative calm of the train car I think of a different song I heard earlier that day, a graceful song where the viola (did you think I'd say violin?--according to the liner notes it's in there too) limns the melody and threads through a flinty, measured, martial ratatatat and soft-bellied vocals. Another fragment, and one you can hold.

Tours - Venice Is Sinking

From Sorry About The Flowers (Amazon, iTunes).
Venice Is Sinking's Myspace

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The precocious one


For some it's the voice--ethereal, sensuous and operatic are a few of the more common attempts at description. For others, it's the progressive rock-influenced lyrical dexterity and experimental instrumentation, often an amalgam of electronic loops, sound effects, and "primitive" percussion. And then, of course, there are the

All aspects of Kate Bush, and there are many, conspire to drive you to love or hate her work. Today, her late 70s theatrical aesthetic, tempered by the lens of 80s music
video art (not to mention hair styles), can appear a bit precious if not touched, leading one to wonder what drives such a devoted following (and I do mean devoted). Is it just one of those inexplicable, positively British things?

Her mainstream hits such as the early and defining "Wuthering Heights", "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)", and "This Woman's Work," combined with her collaborations with Peter Gabriel ("
Games Without Frontiers," "Don't Give Up"), retain the timbre and spirit of excess that Kate Bush embodies. A kind of modern day Maya Deren, eyes wild and lips puckered, she is as comfortable humming number sequences ("Pi") as chirping with birds ("Aerial Tal"), both from last year's much anticipated if uneven Aerial.

Musically and lyrically, her most accomplished effort is also my first introduction, 1985's Hounds of Love. Highlights include the insistent If of the aforementioned "Hill," the swooning vocals and lazy banjo of "Cloudbusting," and the entire second half of the album, a 20 plus minute concept piece entitled "The Ninth Wave" that stretches from the invocation ("Little light!") of "And Dream of Sheep" to the creepy imagery of "Under Ice" to the slow-motion chants submerged in the closing bars of "Hello Earth" (back in the day, my 90 minute Maxell XLII cassette tape--yeah, you know the one--cut short the redemptive waking of the final track "The Morning Fog," thus leaving me forever plummeting).

Cloudbusting - Kate Bush

And Dream of Sheep - Kate Bush

Pi - Kate Bush

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Rene Magritte
The Man of the Sea, Rene Magritte

Maybe Cocaine - Nick Jaina

Classical economics posits that in the event of scarcity (or competitive pricing) one commodity could substitute for another, natural gas, say for coal. Surrealism suggests one thing might, plumbing the subconscious, representing the unmentionable, substitute for another: in crudest terms, a teacup for a vagina, a baguette for a penis. In Roland Barthes' structuralist interpretation, the act of narration, all telling, is a substitution, a way of representing events but not their meaning. I could go on...

So when
Nick Jaina sings (stumblingly) Maybe cocaine/ Can ease the weary voices in my brain, I don't think it's "cocaine," but substitution. Scarcity, want, the inadequacy of words to express either. Cocaine substitutes, for food, for sleep? Maybe, Jaina is not sure, maybe cocaine. Maybe something, maybe nothing, maybe lack, maybe love. He is not a doctor or on T.V., but maybe cocaine. Maybe writing songs. Yes, writing songs; the words that plague his head. Language as desire. The desire for language. Could this be as simple as writer's block? Horns sigh in frustration, violins gasp and shudder. They don't know.

Buy the album The 7 Stations
at CD Baby. Also, Jaina is a writer, even without a pen.

Elsewhere, the
latest Contrast podcast is excellent--musicians introducing their own songs.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Going nowhere, getting somewhere

Window - Richard Buckner

By popular request, a song that's a series of revs and false starts, barely getting off the blocks. Tight riffs and chugging drums that hit the wall and back up and try again, never reaching the chorus. Exhausted, collapsing midway, it yields to a pensive keyboard line. This isn't to say "Window," for all its frustrated energy, isn't a good song. It's a very good song. It is, in fact, the best on Buckner's latest, Meadow (Amazon: US, UK), an album with several inspired moments: among them the tender finger-picked, "The Tether and the Tie" and the kick-off "Town," a track that's expansive where so much of the record feels cramped and decision-stymied.

Go Slow - The Deaths

"Go Slow" isn't typical of The Deaths' hazy psychedelic garage rocker Choir Invisible (buy from Essay Records). If anything, it's an accident wherein the band has stumbled into an unbottomed pit of rhythmic freefall. Syncopated shuffle drums jitter and buck beneath Karl Qualey's brooding croon, and if the lyrics, lines like if you want to break her heart, go slow, enlist sentimental pop tropes, they're bluffs. The song breaks abruptly into an unrelated acoustic coda like a phone line that's been cut. It's menace.

I Wanna Be Adored - Stone Roses

This past week Indie Workshop counted down the Top 50 Album Openers, lead tracks that in their words "ease us in, blow us away." I was slightly indignant that they forgot the above. Granted, I can in no way be objective about this album (Amazon: US, UK). Too much history. But considering the way "I Wanna Be Adored" creeps in unobtrusive on little cat feet before pouncing on one of the most absurdly arrogant lines ever uttered: I don't have to sell my soul/He's already in me, then proceeds to sonically summarize the previous 30 years of rock and anticipate at least the next five. I mean, ??? Not to mention that it sets up a trio with few peers (She Bangs The Drum/Elephant Stone/Waterfall). I gotta be adored: It's an all-or-nothing-proposition that if it were slightly slant, or lent to less-deft hands would be a spectacular failure, but is instead a thing of brazen beauty.

Also: If I hadn't banned myself from eBay, I'd totally bid on the iPod Nano Jennings of Rbally is auctioning to benefit Rogue Wave's drummer Pat Spurgeon. If you haven't already heard, Spurgeon is in desperate need of a kidney transplant. More info here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Band of dolphins

Dolphin Band

First I liked Dolphin Band for their name. (How could you not want to like a band called Dolphin? And aren't we tired of bands named after wolves and bears and horses?) Then, after hearing their music, I liked them for their songs--winsome, immediate, lovely. Dolphin Band (no "The") are Feven and Sirak (so not really a band, but a duo) from Eritrea, East Africa and they recorded these tracks in the kitchen of the Mackerel restaurant (where they work). There's more to the story (of course), including a surprise (?) appearance by Mike Doughty and inclusion on the latest Yeti CD. But I'm still trying to piece it together myself.

Welanureiney - Dolphin Band

Telam - Dolphin Band

Visit Dolphin Band's Myspace and befriend them.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Leaving the canyon

Laurel Canyon Blvd.

Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon) - The Mamas & The Papas

I don't want to ruin this song for you. Because it's a joyous thing. That flushed, sunny chorus of snug harmonies and c'mon-everybody handclaps perches at one of the summits of 60s pop music. But whenever I hear the words, "Young girls are coming to the canyon/And in the morning I can see them walking," I also think of these:

Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing ... It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.

Which is, of course, Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." (And if you don't know why "of course" leave your computer immediately, find a bookstore or library and get your hands on a copy of Didion's collection of the same name. If you're a writerly person, it could change your life.) I've always trusted the cool, uneasy eye Didion casts on 60s mythology, not just because she's one of the most astute observers of American history unfolding. But also because she was born ten years too early to participate in the creation of the Boomers' self-serving narrative of how they almost saved the world. I trust her on California for the opposite reason: She's a native and first-person witness to a series of ruptures that healed poorly.

Is my bias plain? I hope so. Needless to say, I can't interpret L.A. 1967, Laurel Canyon, as "living free" to write or paint or make music or love or whatever, but instead feel it signifies crippling drugs and cults and homeless kids and the Manson murders two years later in nearby Benedict Canyon. Which doesn't mean East Coast exodus, or Turner's frontier thesis or however you want to explain the American impulse for Westward expansion, is invalid or one I don't know intimately. I went to college in the East, then moved to Los Angeles--for many reasons, but mainly because the film industry was there--and stayed for a couple years. And I learned something of the terrain, lexicon, mores. I went to parties in Beverly Hills and dated a surfer and suffered several small earthquakes before surviving one big one. As much as I loved browsing at Book Soup, I learned the essential book in that town is the Thomas Guide. Even so, I would fiercely defend L.A. from anyone who calls it cultural purgatory. But when I left I was relieved. And I miss it all the time. (And for some reason, I've been circling these whiplash memories lately.)

But that was the 90s, not the 60s and I'm trying (probably failing) to explain why a song that pretends to be "California Dreaming's" coda or perhaps the last word in The Mamas & Papas' larger project isn't just a little conflicted, but shadowed by anxiety, rooted in quicksand. Consider its final verse:

Muddy water casts no reflections
Images of beauty lie there stagnant
Vibrations bounce in no direction
But lie there shattered into fragments

But they're singing about New York, you might say, that dark and dirty place in the first verse. Are they? Compare the lyrics to those of Simon & Garfunkel's contemporaneous paean to continental drift, "America." They're specific with details and markers; when you're in Pittsburgh or on the New Jersey Turnpike, you know you are. "Twelve Thirty" is just vague enough that space comes off fractured and dislocated. And more to the point, that first line actually announces "I used to live in New York City," implying everything that follows is not New York. As is often true in the literature of California--from West to Steinbeck to Norris to Bret Easton Ellis--any articulation (even celebration) of its ethos is also its critique.


In last week's New Yorker Roger Angell tried to date the moment the U.S. became an old country. Some these days cite 9/11, including Angell if I understand him correctly. Though by that token, why not Dec. 7, 1941? Or April 16, 1917? You could argue the 1880s when the frontier finally closed, which I bet some historians do. I suspect it happened sometime in the 60s. No evidence, just a feeling.

Buy The Mamas & The Papas (Amazon: US, UK)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

As strange as it seems, news

Nina's On Leaving by Marie-Helene Grabman

There was a new Nina Nastasia album, On Leaving, in the UK yesterday (and sometime soon in the US... seeing conflicting reports between 9/19 and 10/3). She's also at Subterranean on Wednesday. What I've heard of the album is typically brilliant and she's an absolute must-see if you get the chance. One night a little ways back, "I Say That I Will Go" (from Run To Ruin) brought me as close as I'll ever get to in-their-prime Slint. For a certain portion of the population, even those who saw the Slint reunion last year, that's saying something.

If I squint (does English lack an aural version of "squint"? it seems so), I can put myself in the place that dismisses her as yet another singer/songwriter with a pretty, too-delicate sound and not-quite-poetic-enough lyrics, but, in that space, the imagery of Big Black starts to seem a little flowery. If you're willing to stray from minimalism and charnel houses, stuff like "In the Graveyard" (from The Blackened Air) is real poetry from a significant voice.

I Say That I Will Go - Nina Nastasia

In the Graveyard - Nina Nastasia

Speaking of Big Black, they played the Touch and Go 25th Anniversary at the 10th Annual Hideout Block Party over the weekend. Not something I'd ever thought I'd see, and, to be quite honest, I was OK with that lack. They were always, um, powerful, but with the passage of time they've become a force of nature and I'm not one who dreams of feeling gravity fail.

I can report that a) they sounded like Big Black, b) they weren't a disappointing cover band and c) they seemed entirely comfortable with not being the lead dog of the festival. The New Year, Uzeda, the reunited Scratch Acid and, most of all, The Ex all played more vital sets. I know it's hard to imagine, but the absolutely brutal "Cables" really seemed like a love song to those who took those two stages over the weekend and to the label from whence they came. It was, god forbid, nice.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Singalong heart

Stay Afraid

A Pleasant Stay - Parts and Labor

I can hear my blogmate Jon now, yeah, but it's no Orthrelm. No, but oh my God, does Parts & Labor shred, pummel, pulverize, obliterate! And man, does aural annihilation feel good. When Stay Afraid was released six months ago, I guess I knew it would meet the same primal noise need Wilderness' S/T did in 2005, but it wasn't the right time and I tossed it in my mental and digital slush pile. Now that autumn's here and the days are shorter and I've been sleeping less and feeling moodier, itchier (read: bitchier), this album is just about right. But for all its spit and scream and orchestrated catharsis, Afraid is, improbably enough, shot through with bright ribbons of radiant tunefulness, melodies that could stand up and stare you straight in the eye unblinking even without the monster drum kit, anthemic riffs, tech fuzz and punk bagpipes (I think just keyboards, but still) propping them up. Husker Du, obviously, deserves a credit in the liner notes, but also punk sounds of a more Westerly nature. Strip out the static and art, and you hear the soft, singalong heart of classic Southern California hardcore.

Buy Stay Afraid (Amazon: US, UK, eMusic, Jagjaguwar)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Woman of the ghetto

Spice of Life

Woman of the Ghetto - Marlena Shaw

Marlena Shaw wasn't apolitical before she recorded "Woman of the Ghetto" in 1969. No black woman could afford to sit on the sidelines as the nation sifted the ashes of the most incendiary decade in U.S. race relations since the end of the Civil War. Martin Luther King Jr. met his violent death the previous year and the urban landscapes of New York, L.A., Detroit and Cleveland bore fresh scars from economically ruinous riots. The nascent women's movement was urging suburban housewives to question their social and legal status, and for the first time since the mortal chill of the mid-century red scare, intellectuals and students began voicing loud objections to class privilege. But prior to recording Spice of Life (US, UK), Shaw was probably best known as a versatile jazz singer who performed with The Count Basie Orchestra, an interpreter of lyrically neutral standards.

There's little that's neutral about "Woman." Even today, its lyrics are provocative, even strident, poking a sharp stick at the white, quivering belly of middle class complacency, and in particular, ghetto tourists--well-meaning, but ineffective politicians, peace activists and academic types:

You're sittin up there in your ivory tower
Sixty stories tall
Now you may have seen one ghetto
But have you lived there at all?

And if Shaw is fierce and uncompromising (channeling you-go-girl R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha), in her "Brave, free, black me/I am a woman of the ghetto" self-assertion and with her blunt naming of material imperatives--jobs, food, schools, goddammit--who can blame her? It's the only reasonable response to those who would posit a theoretical solution to a practical problem. If you won't come to the ghetto to see how we're really living, I'm gonna bring the ghetto to you.

Most political screeds set to music enjoy the shelf life of unrefrigerated salmon. I know I'm not the only one who cringes--fair or not--at the name Joan Baez. (Though not, of course, when I think of ideologically motivated songwriters like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Funny how the civil rights movement produced so many more keepers than the 60s anti-war and early women's movement.) What makes "Woman" a great and timeless song--essential lyrics aside--is its dazzling, sensuous, funky sound. You know you're in for something special from the opening couple of seconds as Shaw improvisationally hmm hmms over a fat, snaky bass line. She's just warming up for some scorching, but always smooth and disciplined (some of today's pop divas could learn a thing or two) vocal exercises, buoyed by Richard Evans' subtly layered arrangement--soulful choir girl back-ups, conga, organ, electric guitar and distinctive kalimba breaks. Its pop appeal just might be the song's greatest (subversive) strength. Everybody knows you catch flies with honey, not vinegar.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Children's games

Little Girl, Andrea Zuill
Little girl, Andrea Zuill

No One #2 - Anamude

I never jumped rope to songs like this. Jump rope rhymes were about boys and babies and k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Not this catalogue of calamity--earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes--and hurt:

Keeping pain in delay
trying to stay wide awake
throwing rocks at the sun
keeping on running from here to no one.

And the playground was never this lonely, or the snap of rope on asphalt so haunted, or the double dutch beat so jagged and ominous. As much a participant as detached observer, Ana Hortillosa chants in near-affectless sing-song, yet she's the only warm body on this patch. The subtle emotional texture her voice lends to what might otherwise be the soundtrack to a cheap horror flick makes this track all the more chillingly effective.

From Pentimento, which you can buy from Keep Recordings and eMusic. Visit Anamude's Myspace.

Bike - May or May Not

What is it about indie pop bands and bikes? Do we have Syd Barrett ("Bike") and The Archies ("Bicycles, Rollerskates and You") to thank for this seemingly never-ending flashback of pre-adolescent play, this errant emblem of sublimated sex and avoided adult responsibility. (Er, Pee Wee Herman.) Cheap, energy-efficient transportation, my ass. And what of this propensity of indie pop bands to dress their songs with breezy south-of-the-border horn sections ... Oh. Wait. That is different. Is that a clarinet?! And bells! And wait til you get to the end of the instrumental interlude and whoosh the vocal reentry leaps at your chest like a big, sloppy dog. If you were looking for a song to make the death of summer seem bearable, this could be it. Welcome, welcome autumn.

May or May Not's EP Bike hits the streets on September 12. It's available through Two Thumbs Down Records. If you're in the Chicago metro area, the Hideout's the place to be on the 16th for the record release party. The band's MySpace is here.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A little dinner music

Dinner party dame
Dinner party dame, Chris Wake

Tango Cancion - Gotan Project

Kir royale
Add crushed ice to chilled wine or champagne glass and stir in 2 oz. creme de cassis (blackcurrant liquor). Fill with champagne/sparkling wine.

To The Shore (Pathaan's Ray of Sunshine remix) - Bombay Dub Orchestra

Curried carrot soup
2 T. olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 lb. carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 stalk celery, chopped fine
1/2 minced baking potato
2 1/2 t. curry powder
1/4 t. ground coriander
4 cups low-salt chicken or vegetable broth
2 T. flour
2-3 T. chopped fresh Italian parsley

Heat oil in large pot and add onions, garlic, carrots, celery and potato. Cover, cook until vegetables are tender but not brown, stirring occasionally. Add curry powder and coriander and cook, stirring, two minutes. Transfer 1 1/2 cups of mixture to blender or food processor. Add 2 cups broth and flour and blend until smooth.

Return puree mixture to pot and add remaining 2 cups broth. Bring soup to boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until soup thickens, 20-25 minutes. Add parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Around and Around (John Denver) - Mark Kozelek and Rachel Goswell

Roasted squash salad
2 cups (approx. 1 lb.) acorn, butternut or other winter squash, chopped into 1-inch cubes
10 cherry tomatoes, halved
3 T. balsamic vinegar
1 T. olive oil, plus 1/4 cup
2 T. red wine vinegar
1 1/2 t. Dijon mustard
1 t. honey
8 oz. baby spinach leaves
1/4 cup toasted or spiced pecan halves
3 T. dried cranberries

In a large bowl, toss squash and tomatoes with salt and pepper to season, balsamic vinegar and 1 T. oil. Allow to stand 30 minutes, tossing occasionally. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Arrange squash mixture on foil-lined and greased pan. Roast until tender and golden brown, approximately 25 minutes, turning as necessary.

In the meantime, whisk red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil, mustard and honey. Season with salt and pepper. When squash is ready in large bowl toss spinach and dressing. Add squash, pecans and cranberries and toss to combine. Serve immediately. Serves approximately 4.

Unsere Liebe - Klee

Simple sacher torte
5 oz. semisweet baking chocolate
2/3 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs, separated
1/4 cup flour
1/2 t. baking powder

1/3 cup orange marmalade
3 oz. semisweet baking chocolate
2 T. butter
Heavy (whipping) cream

Melt 5 oz. chocolate in a double boiler and set aside. In a bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and add egg yolks. Stir in melted chocolate. Stir in flour that has been blended with the baking powder.

In separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold them into the chocolate batter. Pour batter into heavily greased and floured springform pan. Bake for about 25 minutes in 350 degree oven. Allow cake to cool 10 minutes before reverting onto plate. Spread marmalade on top and sides of cake.

Melt 3 oz. of chocolate with the butter and spread the mixture on the cake. Allow to cool before serving. Serve cake with whipped cream.

Lunatico, Gotan Project (Amazon: US, UK, eMusic, iTunes)
Bombay Dub Orchestra Remixed, Bombay Dub Orchestra (eMusic, iTunes)
Take Me Home: Tribute to John Denver, Various (Amazon: US, UK, iTunes)
Zwischen Himmel und Erde, Klee (eMusic)

Friday, September 01, 2006


Overpass, Jonathan Hudson

Souvenirs - Christine Fellows

I wouldn't follow John Darnielle off a cliff (i.e. buy a metal album), but I'd seriously weigh any opinion he might have on singer-songwriters. Darnielle has said "nobody else is writing at Christine's level," and I'm inclined to believe he's on to something.

"Souvenirs" is a short, focused, feverish burst of twitching strings and throbbing keys. It's a road song, and like many road songs, evocative of blurred faces and landscape, the rush of hot, dry air and distant blink of red brake lights. Unlike most road songs, it's told not from the road, not by the driver or even the passenger. But by the person left behind, waiting in a house next to a highway overpass, imagining the road and its spoils, its souvenirs. The setting is as unprepossessing, even bleak, as you could imagine and yet, and yet, there's this warm, dark curtained romanticism about it, this hold-your-breath anticipation.

Fellows is touring with The Mountain Goats this fall.

Buy Paper Anniversary on iTunes and from Six Shooter Records.

Christine Fellows' Web site

The Merry Muses of Caledonia has a track from Glasgow's disco-mashup-whatever band Flying Matchstick Men. I posted a track by them earlier this year, and I dunno, I like 'em. I like their sloppy free-for-all vibe. But I can understand why there'd be a lot of haters, too.

Don't know how much longer they'll be up, but The Of Mirror Eye has posted a bunch of fantastic tracks from The Birmingham Sound: The Soul Of Neal Hemphill Vol. 1: The Rabbit Factory. You can read the really interesting story behind the collection here (no seriously, read it).