Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Someone to dance with

Dance floor
Image: Q's

The Only Lonely Girl - Storm Gordon

In this shy, soul-smattered disco track, Storm Gordon fails to live up to her name. Her voice is as easy, gentle breezy as a bright June morning, her phrasing a succession of graceful pivots and limber swoops over a balmy beat and electric pulse. The lonely girl's not so much lonely, as alone (a crucial distinction) dancing with herself, but self-contained, complete.

From Someone To Dance With (eMusic). Storm Gordon's Myspace.

Simon Sez - Baby Dayliner

I don't know if you remember that recurring Saturday Night Live skit from several seasons back with the goth kids in Florida? Not particularly funny, but it nevertheless neatly captured the pathos and poignance of alternative culture-making in a relentlessly normative climate. Think of Baby Dayliner (New Yorker Ethan Marunas) making a similarly silly and audacious and possibly profound gesture in a club cluttered with tan-limbed girls and street-language slinging suburban dudes. Enter heaving synths and a labored thump-thump, then the delicious artifice of BD's stentorian demand: Move all you females on the floor. Titters and head shakes follow, more drinks are poured and passed around. The white-pallored DJ in tight jeans boosts the beat and pleads, can't you hear talk is cheap? And promises, hit the dancefloor, I swear it's better than the rest love has to give. And some of these girls and boys (but only a few), slowly venture out to inhabit the pure unthinking--if only for a few hot, damp minutes.

From Critics Pass Away (Amazon, eMusic). Baby Dayliner's Web site.


Nick Southall of Stylus has written a beautiful, bittersweet piece on the dismantling of a great record collection.

Merge Records is having a charity auction on eBay with signed CDs of every 2006 Merge release (including albums from Destroyer, Robert Pollard, Essex Green, Portastatic, Spoon, Lambchop, Camera Obscura). Think very, very special Christmas/Hanukkah present.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sunday song: Down from Dover

Mother and child
Image: 7 Arts Studio

Down From Dover - Jon Langford and Sally Timms

If you were to give birth to a stillborn baby, alone, having been abandoned by the child's father and shunned by your family, you might just have cause to scream and cry, to be frightened and sad and angry. But
Sally Timms narrates the Dolly Parton original, "Down From Dover" somber and matter-of-fact, her voice dipping to a whisper and bristling shivery only toward the conclusion, as the wretchedness of the scene lays itself bare before her.

"Dover" is an economical story, lapping wave on narrative wave. And its monodirectional zeal, its clipped trot to an inevitable death, artificially ages it--lending it the patina of the older ballads when Dover could be a several-day distance and a girl might submit, numb, to the yoke of fate while still holding slippery hope that her man will arrive in time. So Timms' brown-paper plain reading of the song seems right, more than Parton's colorsaturated Little Sparrow version (the original 1970 recording is out of print, but is reportedly even more vivid).

Timms has actually recorded "Dover" several times over a span of 15 or so years--with and without an assist from Mekons comrade Jon Langford--making it her own along the way. Eric Weisbard has a very good piece on the song and the endlessly fascinating Miss Parton's career that appears here.

From Songs of False Hope and High Values (iTunes).

Friday, November 24, 2006

The naming of things

Iceland glacier
Image: Yovo

Passacaglia - Johann Johannsson

One of my favorite "stories" from grade school history lessons was about the naming of Iceland. About how errant Vikings discovered this paradise of ice-crested peaks and verdant valleys running with sweet, warm streams, and carpeted in dense birch forests. And how, on their journey home to collect settlers for this new Viking colony, they told everyone they met (or, since they were Vikings, everyone they clubbed and robbed and murdered) about this frozen, uninhabitable island they dubbed Ice-land and how any wise voyager most definitely didn't want to sail in that direction. Like a lot of history I learned in grade school, this story was mainly apocryphal, but it taught me an important lesson about the power of names.

What if I were to tell you "Passacaglia" is a classical piece? And that it's named after a form that is traditionally written in 3/4 time and features a ground bass pattern that repeats throughout the composition? You might think, oh, but I don't like classical music! So I might say, classical, did I say classical? No I meant wonderful music. I meant moving, I meant thrilling. I meant, this is a song that could melt a glacier. Or this is the sound of a glacier melting. Or pehaps, this is a paradise of ice-crested peaks and verdant valleys running with sweet, warm streams, and carpeted in dense birch forests.

Johann Johannsson is an Icelandic composer who works in electronic and orchestral mediums and "Passacaglia" is a B-side to his single, "The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black" (video, eMusic). This year, Johannsson has also released an album called IBM 1401: A User's Manual, inspired by his father's work with the titular machine. It's an astonishing record in five movements, and you wouldn't want to chop it up, so plan to buy it whole (Amazon, eMusic).

Johann Johannsson's Web site.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

When there's nothing in the way

Get Evens

There's something I've been putting off. And it's not that six-month teeth-cleaning appointment.(Though, sure, that too.) No, it's The Evens' sophomore LP, Get Evens (Amazon, eMusic). But yesterday I tucked in and submitted myself (several times), despite knowing that I wasn't gonna like it. And I didn't much.

Before you grumble about preconceived notions and bias and crap like that, understand this: I loved The Evens' first album. Loved it! It was one of my favorite records of 2005. I initially approached that puppy with trepidation too, worrying about Ian MacKaye getting all middle-aged-soft-bellied and this whole quixotic concept of punk-folk or punk unplugged or whatever you want to tag it. But the self-titled debut--God, what a delight! It was the sound of two kismet-crossed strangers coming together, a little awkwardly at first, bumping elbows as they reached for the same thing at the same time, exchanging nervous smiles, admitting that they weren't quite certain what they were doing. They were veterans to be sure, but each, like raw divorcees back on the dating scene, seemed determined to start fresh and shift the set, change the context, temper adamance, explore subtlety, sing softly. This beautiful romance--a perfect pas de deux of Amy Farina's swift, light, graceful stick and brush work and MacKaye's gruff, laconic, but amiable baritone guitar strokes--was etched onto a spare, spacious canvas. No one expected poetry from this esteemed, but let's face it, dour, pair of punk politicos. But poetry it was.

There was no way I was going to be pleasantly surprised twice. Not when the first record's charm was predicated on its sense of discovery (the musicians' and mine). So what follows isn't objective (I know, obviously), or even very fair. Get Evens, recorded a little over a year after the first album, is more confident, more professional and ... less magical. Between their first and second recordings, MacKaye and Farina toured pretty extensively, and by most accounts made a credible live showing. (I haven't caught them in person, though I did admire their tight and modest one-song set on the first Burn To Shine documentary.) So it pretty much follows that they're going to be both more ambitious and in control. The album's opening track "No Money" encapsulates this later aesthetic, kickstarting with an fierce rush of descending riffage in lockstep with beats and breathless unison singing, which barely lets up, early Fugazi-style, until this strange, sultry, bossanovaesque (or something-esque) solo breakdown/coda enters two-thirds of the way through. The song fails, but by a smidge; there's a hair too much instrumentation where silence would have sufficed and the words are delivered with just a little too much stridency.

When the record works--and in places, it does--it's because it's looser and more relaxed. Take "Get Even." Farina, the better singer of the two, leads the multi-hooked track with a punchy, pellucid vocal line that bobs and weaves through MacKaye's determined strumming. The highlight is the harmonizing, with Farina plumbing the floor of her natural range and MacKaye stretching for the higher end, peaking in this particularly pretty, drawn-out moment at the end of a chorus: Gonna get even one of these days. Which brings me to the lyrical content. Haha, do I really need to say? The thing about this kind of protest music--it's a conversation killer: Shut up and sing. Because if you've gotten this far, you're already down with The Evens' ideological objectives.

Get Even - The Evens

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Dhamaal's SF sounds

Dhamaal Soundsystem

Twilight Creeper - Dhamaal

Z Motion (Shiva Soundsystem Horn and Tusk Remix) - Dhamaal

Initially inspired by the highly politicized and often forebodingly malevolent-sounding Anglo-Asian electronica purveyors of the 90s like Asian Dub Foundation, San Francisco's Dhamaal is nothing if not American. And by that I mean, less politically activist and, at the risk of saying something controversial, probably more culturally integrated. (Hey, if you doubt that the U.S. assumes its immigrants into the fold with relative ease, erasing a lot of those conflict-provoking ethnic distinctions, consider what's going on in France and The Netherlands right now.)

"Twilight Creeper," from the 20-odd member DJ-musician-artist collective's 2004 release, Dhamaal Soundsystem (eMusic, iTunes), is highlighted by a snaky, sanguine South Asian flavored female vocal that swims, nevertheless, through a pretty standard (though still, really good) drum n' bass track. London-based Shiva Soundsystem's breakbeat remix injects some adrenalin and mystery into another Dhamaal Soundsystem offering, "Z Motion." The Shiva remix is a series of shifting planes: Sonic walls appear, floors drop out, ceilings slide open, tempos spool, then unspool, intensifying, disorienting. The flute that transports the melody in the original mix becomes an elusive sun occluded by cloudier, convulsive tribal beats and a sinister pre-language whisper-chant. But you never lose Dhamaal's smooth original blend of classical-and-club or its essentially American optimism.

The remix and three others are found on Dhamaal's Transitions EP (iTunes).

Dhamaal's Web site.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Monsters in our midst

Image: Global Graphica

Werewolves In The City - Viking Moses

It would be easy to dismiss "Werewolves" as the paranoid rantings of another acid-scarred beardo with a psychedelic dream and a beat machine set on "stun." Viking Moses, aka Brendon Massei, doesn't do much to discourage this notion. His official bio claims "many balls-to-the-wall musicians adopt a bohemian persona to fit their music, but Viking Moses is the real deal," adding that the guy hasn't owned a permanent address for almost a decade. Then there's the fact that the musicians he tends to play with, folks like Will Oldham, Chan Marshall and Devendra Banhardt, aren't typically held up as paragons of sanity or stability. Oh, and he likes to cover Jeff Mangum (
video of "Holland 1945").

So to hear "Werewolves" as a genuine protest song, one that deserves to be taken seriously as a well-considered position on the physical vulnerability of the disenfranchised in 21st century America, may seem like a massive misreading. But witness Massei's opening salvo: Fuck the Riverside PD with their helicopters shining lights, and its clear echo of the old--and relatively legitimized--gangsta rap "fuck tha police" sentiment. Or the chorus (movingly scream-sung in the final round):

Werewolves in the city are a big problem
Why don't you get out of the sky and stop them
From tearing up children, children in the night
Last night I found a kid's head on my bike.

And then put yourself on that bike (perhaps your only real possession) on the riverbank or sleeping rough on the street, and crane your neck up, up, up and squint to spy these predatory winged machines with their blinding lights and deafening roar, fighting the "war on drugs" maybe, or perhaps fighting some other imaginary, but officially recognized, monster. But certainly not protecting you from the human predators who pick off street kids and the other unlucky-to-be-exposed. Now, from this vantage point, through this distopian (but really pretty realistic) lens, ponder the meaning of monster.

From Werewolves In The City single (eMusic). Viking Moses' Myspace.

Werewolf - Cat Power

The Werewolf Song - Michael Hurley

We have this long tradition of exorcising undesirable feelings and afflictions by displacing them on invented monsters--in effect, dividing our selves. By some accounts, werewolves arose from an anxiety over the disease lupus. The howlin' hairy beasts also often turn up as metaphors for some of the icky, unmanageable transformations and moodswings of adolescence. Chan Marshall knew this, I'm sure, when she chose to cover Michael Hurley's "Werewolf Song." Media reports suggest she's recently ended, or has found a wayside on, what's seemed like a very painful and public journey toward a kind of wholeness. But "Werewolf," which appears on 2003's You Are Free finds her mid-march ... in a slow, shivering trundle-gait, picking shards of broken mirror off the forest floor.

Hurley's version, an early one, is, if possible, even more fractured and unknowable.

From First Songs (eMusic). Michael Hurley fan site.

Cat Power's Web site.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Shiny boots of leather

Venus in Furs, Woman with Shoe
Image: Salvador Dali

Venus In Furs - DeVotchKa

When I was 20 and studying in London, my roommate was this melodramatic English girl who was training to be an opera singer. We didn't have a proper stereo, just this shitty little boombox, and instead of playing the classical vocal pieces you'd expect, Clarissa would spin The Velvet Underground & Nico end on end, hour after hour til we were both flushed and limp and nodding on its desolate dusky dirges and itchy anthems to getting high. I’ll always associate "Venus In Furs" with her, even though I don't believe Clarissa actually owned a pair of shiny, shiny patent leather boots (or fur, for that matter) as part of her formidable wardrobe. No, it was more the way she slow-sashayed into a room and held her chin at a sly, knowing angle, just like Maria Schneider in Last Tango In Paris.

Maybe a couple years later, I read Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs and was unimpressed--too tame and tasteful--but it conveyed me to its correlative, Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. However sophisticated you think you are (and even if you know contemporary transgressives like Dennis Cooper), Sodom greets you like an exposed electrical wire to the spine. Not pornography--though I get why some read its queasy circuit of torture and humiliation that way and can't proceed past their initial revulsion--it's really an interpretive skeleton key capable of opening a passage to everything from the nature of power to the moral vagaries of desire to the limits of art. The Velvet Underground took their name from a book on sadomasochism and were sympathique to the imaginative possibility of representations of physical and emotional extremity. This aesthetic apparatus proved very useful--defining, really (peruse the critical texts on the band).

But what's wondrous about VU is that even when you disassemble all that stuff, the songs stand as these rigorously elegant, infinitely rehabitable structures. DeVotchKa--a Denver assemblage of glam-gypsies led by a singer with a wonderfully ostentatious voice so big and reaching that I imagine it splitting continents (if not headlining Vegas)--is perfectly suited to "Venus." The band reimagines the song as a headlong, hopped-up club hit, ideal for dancing delirious in abandoned warehouses. Ecstasy rather than heroin, bright parrot-plume t-shirts rather than black turtlenecks. And instead of hobbling, stiletto fetish-wear, shoes that can carry you through the long night.

DeVotchKa's "Venus" is probably my favorite cover of 2006.

From Curse Your Little Heart (Amazon: US, UK, iTunes). DeVotchKa's Web site.

Friday, November 10, 2006


Utter exhaustion, illness and work purgatory have tied our typing fingers this week. I claim the first, Jon's the sick one, and even though I haven't talked to him in a little while it's always safe to assume that Joe, who has an Important Job, is in the grip of late capitalist global economy obligations.

That, incidentally, was a explanation, not an excuse. I believe in the former but have little patience for the latter.

Per usual, insomnia haunts me, even when the very marrow of my bones moans for rest. You'd think that all this late night wakefulness--if not alertness--would be conducive to blogging. Sort of. I wrote a long, personal post on Tuesday, read it fresh on Wednesday and stripped out half, read it fresher yesterday and decided it was too naked, that it violated my own and others' privacy too much. That I shouldn't attempt posts like that when I'm glassy-eyed and thin-skinned. So it's shelved indefinitely. (I know, I'm such a tease.)

Last night, I didn't even try to write--just lay in bed listening to twilight songs that sound like sleep even when they fail to usher it in.

Piles of Clothes - John Weinland

A pile of clothes (or what appears to be) is one of the most fraught images we regularly encounter. Seen from a distance while driving, it might be a dead animal. On a city sidewalk bunched against a building, it's a homeless human being. In a basket in our homes, it's work--laundry either dirty in want of washing or clean in need of putting away. John Weinland--which is a band, not a person--disturbs this mound of cloth, nudging it for its uneasy symbolic value: the unfolded, unfinished, unsaid. Singer Adam Shearer's warm, shaky tenor and a ragged troop of guitar, violin, mandolin, piano, brushed drums (more?) animate the pile, raise a warm blanket and offer it to your cheek. An unexpected comfort.

Also, n.b., James Merrill's "The Mad Scene": Again last night I dreamed the dream called laundry.

From Demersville (artist direct, CD Baby, iTunes). John Weinland's Web site.

Journey - Metallic Falcons

Light, then darkness, then light, then darkness again. A blink sears angels on eyelids.

From Desert Doughnuts (Amazon, eMusic). Metallic Falcons' Myspace.


Said The Gramophone has an essential post from guest John K. Samson of The Weakerthans. It all too sorrowfully accompanies something that happened here in Chicago last week.

On a lighter note, and admittedly a little dated now, Heather Havrilesky of Salon echoes my dismay about one of the new television season's seemingly most promising, but as the rolling weeks have revealed, actually most loathsome, programs. When it comes to TV, I always seem to throw my lot in with losers. Such is Jericho.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sunday songs: Water water

Liquid Gold
Image: Karine Nguyen-Tuong

Faces On The Riverside - broken deer

It's hard to talk about broken deer and not discuss process or production choices or even to trot out Greil Marcus' comment on Harry Smith's Anthology about the familiar becoming strange. Eighty, 90 years ago, intrepid ethnomusicologists lugged cumbersome recording equipment into the wilderness, intent on capturing the songs of life lived in situ. Lindsay Dobbin (the Halifax, Nova Scotia singer-songwriter behind broken deer), makes her field recordings and ambiant acquisitions with the relative luxury of a handheld tape recorder. But the result is no less naive- or spooky-sounding, even if you suspect Dobbin has as much control of the process as anyone crafting songscapes of tape bleed, distortion and other happy natural and technological accidents. The sensuously sung scrap of a tune in "Faces On The Riverside" has the bygone moan of an antediluvian blues record. Yet laced by spectral whispers and peppered with what sounds like a vocal sample loop ground it in the self-conscious here-and-now.

From Displaced Field Recordings (via mailorder and Paypal). Broken Deer's Myspace.

Where In The World Are You - Great Lake Swimmers

I've been disappointed by Great Lake Swimmers in the past, wishing there was more to Tony Dekker's extremely pretty, but watery, meandering compositions. Dekker, however, has an extraordinary instinct for interpretation and does lovely things with the material he has: stark and dramatic recordings (in churchs and empty grain silos), sensitive guitar phrasing that has plucked notes flickering like flames on breezy, moonless nights and a serene (if slightly defeated-sounding) vocal style. "Where In the World Are You" is one of GLS's best songs, a close miced hymn to hopelessness with a lilting melody that rises and falls like compromised breath. Sequence it next to Sufjan Stevens' "Flint" (as my iTunes library did when I searched "great lake") and you won't even notice as one segues mournfully into the next.

From Kill Rock Stars' compilation The Sound The Hare Heard (Amazon, eMusic). Great Lake Swimmers' Web site.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The vanishing

Whisper Across the Sky, Joe Carey

Ext. Leslie Park - Benoit Pioulard

From Precis (eMusic, iTunes). Benoit Pioulard's Web site.

Bright and Early, Joe Carey

Everything - Casey Dienel

From Wind-up Canary (
Amazon, eMusic). Casey Dienel's Web site.

Photographs by
Joe Carey (JC to your right). Click on images for larger views.