Wednesday, May 30, 2007

All along there was a song


I See Things - The Choir Practice

Yes, you have heard better choirs: The Vienna Boys', The Mormon Tabernacle, Chanticleer, any Gay Men's. Your own high school choir (you singing second soprano or tenor, perhaps).

But that's not the point. To sing six or 14 or 25 or 60, as opposed to one -- without accompaniment, or perhaps with a pinch of piano or sprinkle of glockenspiel -- is an impulse universally understood. To brave hot lights, a butterfly stomach and shoes that pinch, just to feel shoulder against shoulder and deep collective breath drawn-in and exhaled in song. And not to know where your voice ends and another's begins.

From The Choir Practice (Amazon, iTunes)
The Choir Practice's Myspace

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Native tongue

Image: Naroki

Passage to India - The Museum Pieces

"Passage to India" is a song about tropical climates, dreamt from a cold one. It's hot parts filtered through Forster, mediated by The Year of Living Dangerously and The Sheltering Sky. A well-intentioned Orientalist exercise, assembled from sepia photographs and 19th century travelogues. And yet this thing that's so obviously inauthentic, with its hot-coal organ, its curlicued guitar lines, its swollen piano runs,
is also warm and thick and real. You can run your hands through its muggy middle if you splay your fingers wide and take your very slow time.

I've liked the The Museum Pieces' music for a while, but it wasn't readily available. Now the album
Philadelphia has been added to eMusic and is recommended.

The Museum Pieces' Myspace.

Moon Over Goldsboro - The Mountain Goats

Many of John Darnielle's most famous songs are about Going To some place -- Maryland, Utrecht, Bogota, Reykjavik. They're snapshots, shuffled set pieces, flash fictions. And they have uneasy charm and uncanny magic and some of them are among my favorite songs ever (see: "Going to Georgia" and "Going to Scotland"). But they don't
pretend to explain what's it's like to long-live a place's mundane everyday -- its grid of streets, its lonely shops and service stations, its screaming high school football games and barking dogs, the greeny smell of a river that runs through the night air and how the moon hovers. "Moon Over Goldsboro" from last year's Get Lonely (Amazon, eMusic) isn't about going to but staying put; it's the sound of mellowed habitation in an east-to-central North Carolina town. Darnielle doesn't chip at his guitar, pick-to-block-of-ice style, as he used to. Here, it's all gentle strum and the melancholy drift of strings. But even as he sings "Empty lot the station faces/Will probably be there forever," impermanence is the most salient fact of the song. The sleeping woman in the small house that the narrator returns to at the end of a long walk is now a mirage. These days he always wakes up alone.

The Mountain Goats' website.

And: Emotional Karaoke is a very good, intensely personal new blog devoted to the songs of The Mountain Goats.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Crazy in love

Image: Sue Beyer

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - Miranda Lambert

Revenge tales constitute a
bounteous chunk of our murder ballad birthright and, of course, we've got our contemporary chronicles like Johnny Cash's "Delia's Gone," and (God help us) Eminem's hateful "Kim." We recite these texts of bloodlusting payback and gunshot resolution (yes, gun-control doctrinaires too) alone in the dark -- mentally reenacting other, more emotionally satisfying, ends to our own heartbroken wrongs. But even spitting mad, we feel guilty about it in the day's bright light. Right? Er, right? Which may be why Miranda Lambert's capped-and-bleached Texas grin of an outlaw ballad/revenge fantasy is both exhilarating and uncomfortable. That bounding banjo and those percolating guitar n' drums sound awfully gleeful. And obsessive stalking (It took me five bars, some 30 license plates/I saw her Mustang and my eyes filled up with rage) and concealed weapons seem like just another night on the town with your best gal pal. Surprisingly, "Crazy's" denouement is pretty tame: The gun that makes its appearance in Act One doesn't actually fire in Act Three. But hoo boy does Lambert perform an ugly public exorcism of some bad and yes, violent, feelings. This expert balance of horseplay and insanity makes "Crazy" more than your typically tiresome values-affirming Nashville product. Besides, who's to say what happens off-screen? There's always closing time in the parking lot.

From Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Amazon, iTunes)
Miranda Lambert's Myspace

The One I Love
- Liz Durrett

I don't love this cover; for one thing, it's too funereal.
But what never occurred to me until I heard Athens, Ga. based Liz Durrett sing the R.E.M. original was that this song isn't simply a stealth weapon deployed in the final battle of a long-suffered domestic campaign, a careful-worded punch in a place where the bruise won't show. No, it's much more devastating. Durrett's sagging dolorous delivery and the drummer's stark bucket-thud beats throw into relief the song's awful logic, its repudiation of love as a living thing, as a viable concept. Consider these words (that you know well):

This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I've left behind
A simple prop to occupy my time
This one goes out to the one I love.

The prop isn't someone the singer used to love, and kept around past her/his sell-by date. The prop is someone the singer loves, still loves, just like the new prop; love being ever and always there only "to occupy my time." Love being equal to prop. We're talking something not just cruel but deeply misanthropic. Another interesting thing about the way Durrett performs this. When Michael Stipe sings "Love," it's inscrutable. Though it's one of the few songs R.E.M. recorded in this era where every word pretty much rings clear, the emotions, the object of address, everything, is opaque. (Which, of course, is why "Love" is up there with The La's "There She Goes" as one of the most misunderstood love-songs-that-ain't.)
Durrett, on the other hand, autopsies this body under white naked lights. But she doesn't judge. As she peels back the skin of teenage/rock star
dedication rhetoric (public avowal as a sort of socially sealed covenant), she lets you peer into the corpse's cavity and decide for yourself. Anyway, it's a way more radical song than I ever thought and a trickier cover than it might at first seem.

From Finest Worksongs: Athens Bands Play the Music of R.E.M. (Amazon, Athensmusic).
Liz Durrett's Myspace

Elsewhere, but totally related:

Charlie of Nerd Litter was nice enough to interview me for his Behind the Blog series. I dished celebrity gossip, dropped several embarrassing personal ... ok, those are lies. But we did chat about some of my favorite 2007 albums, the worst film I ever saw and my mp3 blogosphere peeves (along with a lot of book talk), so it's an interesting read I think. Thanks, Charlie!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Let the temperature rise

Joan as Police Woman

Christobel - Joan as Police Woman

The photo on the cover of the very good, very complicated pop album Real Life
, is a portrait of false dichotomies. Stagelit, Joan Wasser angles her shoulders and chin slightly defiant, even confrontational, and her eyes lock the camera's lens, fierce, like she's watching it watching her. Yet her lips are set tremulous (she could cry on a dime) and her golden-brown shag halos her face. Around her neck Wasser wears a slab of brassy hardware in the shape of an apple. Or possibly a peach. Does the fruit matter? Maybe ... it could be the difference between a fallen and defiant Eve and some soft southern belle. Devil and angel. Tough chick and the pliable kind who always says yes. Wasser, as Joan as Police Woman (after Angie Dickinson's 70s cop drama), plays both, but mostly neither. Mostly more. Over the course of 10 gritty and glamorous songs, heatseekers and heatmakers with titles like "Flushed Chest" and "Eternal Flame," she is complicated. She demands (in the words of Lil Mama and my fave jam of the mo, "Lip Gloss"), "whatcha know bout me?" Less than you think.

An article in last Sunday's New York Times on the elusive quest for online music success includes this among its for-what-their-worth findings: Artists should post to their Myspace page the song that's "immediately catchy, yet not necessarily the strongest" on their album. "Christobel" is wedged somewhat ignominiously in the middle of Real Life, between the aforementioned "Flushed Chest," a poignant, aching thing reportedly written about Wasser's late boyfriend Jeff Buckley, and torrid piano-soul ballad "Save Me." But it streamed at the top of JAPW's Myspace for months (120,733 plays) and it's easy to hear why. Among tracks couched in the blended vocabularies of jazz, cabaret, classic soul, top-40 diva pop, "Christobel's" the only thing approaching a rocker on the record, speaking a less exotic dialect that incorporates 90s alt-rock (including a brief electric solo that probably could have found space on a song by Wasser's former band, The Dambuilders) and something earlier -- the rock chick lexicons of Joan Jett and Pat Benetar perhaps. And it's propulsive, hooky and mysterious. It's an elliptical supernatural noir about a shadowy Christobel and her (possibly already dead) amour that plunges down dark city alleys with light, tripping beats and a bendy bassline rubbing up against distorted violins and moaning, blistered backing vocals that at first sound female, then like ghostly men out of tune and out of range. Gender ambiguity is central to the song. Wasser addresses Christobel, "why won't you fall in love with me?" but you don't get the sense that this is a lesbian serenade. Listen to the way Wasser delivers the chorus, "Yes, [beat] Christobel," like a little grunt, like she's pumping her fist -- a totally masculine phraseology. She's channeling a guy. To further support my little argument, consider again the title of the album and the songs that precede this one: songs that toy with identity, that waver and stumble between the actual and fictive, the biographical and auto-, the acting and the audience, and all the good, meaty, real stuff that lies in the short distance between.

A year after coming out in Europe, Real Life is finally seeing a release this side of the Atlantic in June (Cheap Lullaby, Amazon).

Monday, May 14, 2007

You paint the night time blue

Morris Louis
Image: Morris Louis

Somebody Changed - The Clientele

The Clientele can be so sleepy and soft even my narcoleptic jell-bellied cat (who sits next to me while I write most blog posts and listens to everything I listen to) rolls her green eyes in scorn when a Clientele song comes on. Which I guess is why, despite the fact that Strange Geometry was one of my favorite albums of 2005, I hadn't marked the arrival of their new one on my calendar. It takes a delicate mood, you know? Fortunately, the band has shaken that mood for a spell (even calling one of their new songs "These Days Nothing But Sunshine"). If the guitar lines are inky as ever, they're no longer how I'd mentally pictured them and The Clientele's pensive words in the past -- as small Japanese brush paintings, a tension of crisp strokes and fuzzed scribble. Instead, songs like "Somebody Changed," with its vivacious little piano line, make me think of Morris Louis' color veils: soft and liquid, boldly chromatic, materials creeping deep into their canvas.

From God Save the Clientele (Amazon, eMusic).
The Clientele's Myspace

The Great Divide - Aerospace

At first when the singer claims it's okay and everything's all right so wan and diffident, you're not so sure it is. In fact, you doubt it very much. But you want to believe him. You do. So as the song's loose jangle and noncommittal jaunt gains momentum and assurance -- cresting at 2:25 in a emphatic dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum -- it's sort of a relief. You're reminded of the vibrant force of a little pop song and how it can put a good face on a bad day.

From Labrador 100: A Complete History of Popular Music (Amazon, eMusic)

- Dog Day

"Lydia" is no less sweet than the above two songs. No really. That horror film bit at the beginning: a joke, a playact, a plastic Frankenstein mask hiding a crooked grin. Really, this song is about kids setting up a band in the basement, a coed quartet named Seth, Casey, Crystal and Nancy (a basement in Halifax, Nova Scotia) -- discovering the joy of punk rock, galloping their guitars and racing their drums, learning the infinite expressive power of la-la-la. One of the girls keeps
filling the gaps in the song with gleeful shouts of Li-dee-a, teasing her bandmate, the guitarist, who has a crush on this girl at school by that name. Lydia, in fact, hinted that she might stop by later, watch them practice and like, hang out for a while. So the guitarist keeps casting sly glances at the door, hoping she'll come, but not, please not while they're playing this song.

From Night Group (Amazon, eMusic).
Dog Day's Myspace


Last Thursday I saw
Tao Lin read some of his strange, wonderful, utterly disarming poems and stories at a Bookslut event. Many are online (see on his blog sidebar item "Tao Lin literature") and highly recommended.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Another in a series


Question for you: Name one indie band with more than two albums under its belt that continues to get better and better with each new release.

Only one comes to mind: Electrelane, whose latest No Shouts, No Calls, continues to improve on a sound that will never be groundbreaking, but remains intensely compelling. (I suppose there are a certain set of folks that'd make a case for Wilco but, come on, they've shit the bed and are daring you to love the smell.)

Those of you that already like 'em will find the same elements you're used: graceful and awkward harmonies riding the top, rhythms from the Rhur from 30 years ago, and (boy this should come as a surprise) Albini engineering.

So, what's different this time? Hard to pin down as the formula really hasn't changed, but if you forced me to comment, I'd say there's a little less wistfulness, a little more specificity. My object example: Instrumentals, like "The Lighthouse" seem to completely resolve rather than drift pleasantly until they're over. And more standard guitar line/lyrics numbers ("The Greater Times") pack a little more punch.

Any bands I missed? Argument anyone?

The Lighthouse - Electrelane

The Greater Times - Electrelane

No Shouts, No Calls at Amazon, eMusic.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The lonesome crowded midwest

New Ruins

Flowers - New Ruins

Book Lung
- New Ruins

Last weekend, peeling labels off emptied beer bottles in a country & western bar on the north side of Chicago, some friends and I discussed (there was no argument; we agreed) why probably no one in the room was an authentic cowboy. Not the regulars (ragged, unrepentant drunks, chins hanging low to the bar), nor the proficient two-steppers with their ironed western shirts neat-tucked into their bootcut jeans. Certainly not the boisterous bragging Cubs & Sox fans or hood-eyed hipsters who trickled in as rock shows ended and the night drew on and the spectrum of opportunity to pose ironically with their PBRs constricted dramatically. No authentic cowboys, we agreed, because while the midwest is thick with hicks and hayseeds, loners, wanderers and farmkids (and I say those things affectionately) -- many of whom move to Chicago and assume the appearance of urbanity and assemble into a mostly invisible rural diaspora -- places to herd cattle are nonexistent for hundreds and hundreds of miles. It's a plain fact of geography.

A real live westerner myself, born and (mostly) bred in the thin dry air of the Rocky Mountains, but also a dozen-year Chicago resident whose family history is carved into the bedrock of this city and state (I'm pretty closely related to Illinois' most famous political export), I can attest: There's a difference between western and midwestern. Not just in speech patterns (vowels flattening out
on the long slow crawl to the Pacific), or in attitudes toward the federal government, but in relation to physical space. A southern friend once teased me for recoiling when people stand too close or lean in too near to talk. It's true. As Schoolhouse Rock's lesson in manifest destiny (excised of all that icky genocide) goes, everybody needs some elbow room. I do, anyway.

So all this is sort of a crabwalk to a musical point of inquiry: Does music concerned, even on the basic level of nomenclature, with specificity of place, roots or Americana, differentiate by region? Is a variance audible between, say, music inspired by rural landscapes of unlimited perspective of land and sky (or, at least, their illusion), and those drawn and quartered by farm acreage, white picket fences, church steeples and other markers of the civilized and finite?

Let me back up and explain what got me here. A couple days ago I heard this very good new album (The Sound They Make) by
a band (New Ruins) from Champaign-Urbana, a largish Illinois college town set in a sea of cornfields. It's a rock record and a roots record, a distinctly American record that oscillates between slow songs with deliberately drawn portraits of small-town claustrophobia and faster frantic escape attempts. All tempoed numbers, though, are dense with detail -- guitars and keyboards, cellos and violins, shakers and wood-block percussion. New Ruins is a duo, but you wouldn't know it from the noise they stir up. And my gut reaction, the first evaluative step I took was: This sounds midwestern. Part of it is that New Ruins reminds me of, more than any other right-now band, those dour Ohio expats, The National. The National of large gestures in crowded rooms and self-defeating versions of masculinity, of baritone plaints and caged rhythms. The National which, despite its Britpop nods and current Brooklyn address, plants its itchy feet in the loamy midwest soil. (So, more like The Regional, huh?)

I hate to push a point this vague, but New Ruins peddles a kindred midwestern gothic (the band even uses that phrase to describe itself) -- housed and haunted. Oh, so haunted! Almost every one of their album's songs rouses ghosts. Not, I suspect, in the strictly supernatural sense (though that too perhaps), but as specters of bad feelings, relinquished hopes, cracked relationships. None of which sounds like much fun, I know. But it is. "Book Lung," for example, is a riveting track of quicktimed martial drums, sketched with black skies, dirty sheets and men who shake with rage like power lines in the wind. Mostly, though, it's a song that seems to exist to convey a single line sung again and again: Your ghost still walks all around these hills. The key word, I think, being still. The implication, still here, trapped. Gorgeous strings moan and a forlorn organ bleats like an emergency warning throughout another song, "Flowers." And the singer's grainy tongue (both guys sing, I don't know which one it is) catalogues his small town's decay: ditches and rusted cars and flowers pushing up floorboards in abandoned houses. And so the record goes on like this song-by-song -- small squares of frustration beautifully stitched together, like the patchwork quilt my own midwestern great-grandmother made and I (sadly, because there's no room to put it out) keep folded in a closet. Or the pieced parcels of earth you might see from the sky as your plane flies westward from Chicago.

The Sound They Make
(Amazon, eMusic).
New Ruins' Myspace.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Disappear without a trace

You Set Me Reeling - The Nightjars

Nightjars: I imagined a child sneaking out just before bedtime, barefoot, flannel-pajamaed, with an armload of dusty Mason jars. Placing them strategically -- one precarious on a windowsill, another snug in the crook of tree branches, yet another wedged among the rocks of a pond -- to capture the night. But when she returns pre-dawn, finds them gone, stolen by the jealous nightjar thief!

Then I found this.

"You Set Me Reeling": A perfect little pop song with pretty chiming guitars and an easy rolling rhythm. Despite its lyrics' evocation of love's unbalancing (specifically, the hour-by-hour emotional flux), it's a steady track of equipoise, of strong verse matched by potent chorus.

The Nightjars' Myspace.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Modern lepers

Aesop revisited
Image: Luca Tripaldi

I know I posted a Frightened Rabbit song a
mere month ago. Leave me alone.

The Modern Leper - Frightened Rabbit

It's closing in on midnight and the singer is negotiating the railroad tracks that will lead him home. (I say just "the singer" because these guys roll semi-anonymous, except when their dad is making proud, adorable
comments on blog posts.) Negotiating might actually give him too much credit. Stumbling-drunk off his ass, more like. Trying not to trip and fall on his face, if you want to know the truth. Sweating whiskey, his legs rubber, his feet spraying pebbles, the tips of his shoes catching the ties of the tracks. And the band, his mates, his brothers, follow -- arms ready should he fall, should he derail. Follow with stabbing guitars and a drum set that thumps and hisses with stinging precision. Instruments that counter the singer's late-night self-loathing proclamations with steady assertions of their own (goading or refuting -- it's not clear), keeping up as trot progresses to wild sprint.

This song isn't politically correct. But it is, with word grenades like cripple and leper and pitiless admissions like "I am sick, but I'm not dead," correct in what it feels like to be self-pariahed, to blueprint and build your own house of exile. And this song sounds so alive, so great recorded in front of an audience (not sure I'd enjoy a studio version as much), like the possibilities of what some might term a doomed relationship are working themselves out right here, right now -- and who knows what might happen?

The track is from the session
eMusic recorded at SXSW in March. Frightened Rabbit's LP Sings the Greys, has yet to see an official release this side of the Atlantic. It is, however, available on eMusic and it's wonderful. You should have an eMusic subscription, huh? (Incidentally, I'm not shilling for any kind of compensation: This blog is strictly a money-losing venture.) The band's Myspace.

"Stockades" - Frog Eyes

Back in the 90s when radio stations first started calling themselves "alternative," someone (probably Steve Albini or some Baffler wag) asked the obvious, but essential question: alternative to what? Increasingly, "indie rock" is the same kind of signifier for certain cultural values held by particular groups (do I need to say?), but not a useful way of describing a sound or even differentiating between major label and independent modes of production and distribution. Increasingly, "indie rock" means the stuff you're already comfortable with -- kinda-noisy-but-mostly-melodic pop that you used to actually hear on the radio. It's mainstream music that lacks channels to be mainstreamed. Not to pick on Broken West, but this year's Merge success story -- just for example -- is an eminently likable power pop band, but not uh, challenging in the way you'd expect (hope?) underground music to be. And of course I like some of this mainstream music. Of course. But I'm also glad that a band like Frog Eyes is kicking around, a band whose pedigree is indie as fuck but whose sound is totally fucked up -- often abrasive, not particularly invested in winning you over, not so amenable to classification.

The new album, Tears of the Valedictorian (Amazon, eMusic) may be a little more, as they say, mature, than previous efforts. But it's still overzealous, gaudy (even tacky), majestic and somehow able to successfully perform basic hurts, plain heartbreak, with ornate sets and extravagant costumes. The record -- and "Stockades," which I think is best and pretty representative, not to mention a lot shorter than the other really superb psychic meltdown on the record, "Bushels" -- is what you'd expect if, say, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped a crew of carnival workers and forced them at gunpoint to stage a musical version of Macbeth. Or some such absurdity.

Frog Eyes'

Then there's this:

Said the Gramophone's Sean Michaels' interview with Will Sheff (Okkervil River) in the May issue of The Believer is warm, funny, engaging and all-around fantastic.

Big Rock Candy Mountain has finally tallied the votes and is slowly counting down its
top 100 drinking songs.

A sort of interesting post at
Pretty Goes With Pretty (I'm late to the party) on what's becoming a familiar hand-wringer in this here microculture: The Problem With Mp3 Blogs. For what it's worth, I think his central lament -- that no one's really writing anything interesting on blogs -- is way overstated. I'm as frustrated as anyone (probably more so) by the fact that the majority of mp3 bloggers fail to critically engage (which is totally different from "being critical") with the music they post. I'm even more frustrated by the masses of bloggers who don't seem to think it's necessary to communicate their relationship and experience with music (what usually plays out as "personality"). But I also know that there are more intriguing blogs than I have time to read (I struggle to keep up with my own blogroll), and plenty of blogs that are attempting to do something more meaningful than slap up the latest leak or cut & paste press releases. And meaningful doesn't have to mean verbose or well-researched or routinely profound. Bravo to anyone who can say something with a single heartfelt sentence or well-chosen image. Hurrah for anyone who even tries. Oh, and I'm gonna be peevish here: Pitchfork? Not a blog. Say it after me: Pitchfork. Is. Not. A. Blog.