Thursday, June 28, 2007

Summer disaster mix

Image: Mina Magee

On Tuesday Chicago was Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Lakes. A late afternoon cloudburst (4 inches in 45 minutes) and our capricious sewers flipped the off switch and hit the picket line; viaducts turned into churning gray sludge pools and generally smooth east-west arteries were sudden stroke victims. I made it by diverted "express" bus as far north as Lake Shore Drive and Addison, then walked the rest of the three miles home. Which wouldn't have been dire if I'd been wearing my normal homeward-trek footwear instead of two-and-a-half inch heel sandals and a floaty skirt. If the sidewalks hadn't been littered with the storm's natural debris and manmade fallout. If there hadn't been a Cubs game clotting the mile-wide perimeter of Wrigley Field. And if roving bands of desperate, tired, hungry-to-get-home commuters weren't congesting everything else. It was
The Road without the infant-eating and sex-enslaving.

Spectators placed bets at the four-feet-under-water intersection of Irving Park and Ravenswood. The Blazer will make it, one guy called out. Five bucks on the Blazer, another offered.
Meanwhile, enterprising seagulls sensitive to new westward opportunities vultured overhead as if seafood might spawn
before their glinty eyes in the temporary bodies of water. I slipped off my muddy shoes and barefoot, tiptoed the water-rimming catwalk ledge, sidestepping twigs and bottleglass. A few people clapped. (Later I read that a woman who chanced the same intersection-crossing maneuver fell in but swam -- swam! -- to safety. Me: good balance and small feet, I guess.) The Blazer made it too, but the cab that followed was a floater. Fifteen buses wallpapered the edge of the eastbound lane on the other side, their drivers crossarmed and tense. Five degrees hotter, a few hours later, a dash of liquor and it'd be a riot. (If you live in a city long enough you can take that kind of temperature in a glance.) When I reached the Walgreens several blocks from home I stumbled in and bought a Nestle Crunch bar -- the king size. The checkout guy told me that a few miles along it was worse: Crossing Cicero called for a boat. Crunch is a candy bar I never normally buy and definitely not for dinner. But urban adventures (and dystopic) tales write their own twists.

Next month: Hot as hell and power outages! August: Unknown, but inevitable urban disasters! In deference to the nature gods I offer a mix of heat, beats, grooves and appropriate menace. (It's been a while since I've done one of these.) Happy summer!

Hot Funky & Sweaty - The Organites
From Hot Funky & Sweaty: The Sound of Heavy Soul and Funk Today (Amazon, eMusic).

Tony Danza Dancetravaganza
- Shitt Hottt

Do Dada - Dance
From New York Noise: Dance Music from the New York Underground 1978-1982 (Amazon).

She Don't Care No More - The Lurios


- Simian Mobile Disco
From Attack Decay Sustain Release (Amazon). Myspace

99 1/2
- Mavis Staples
From We'll Never Turn Back (Amazon, eMusic). Website

Flapjack Devilfish - Per Se

Phosphorus Flash
- The Saffron Sect
From Phosphorus Flash EP (Fig Records). Myspace

You're In Charge of Driving the Narcotics Trolley... - The Voyces
From Kissing Like It's Love (
Amazon, eMusic). Myspace

In the Morning
- The Bee Gees
From The Early Hits (iTunes).

Final Path - Yeasayer

Diama Don - Issa Bagayogo
From Tassoumakan (Amazon, eMusic).

Lip Gloss - Lil' Mama
From Lip Gloss (Amazon). Myspace

The Summer Song - YACHT

St. Elmo's Fire - Brian Eno
From Another Green World (Amazon)

Download the zip file

Monday, June 25, 2007

Season full of bee stings

The drug-induced (er, cold medicine) fog has finally begun to dissipate. Last week was a tad hellish.

Everybody's Down
- No Age

Given the collective critical swoon and bloggy hot n' botheredness over No Age, the LA skaterat-rock duo normally wouldn't merit mention from me. Cept damn, this stuff is fucking great! The band's superb
Weirdo Rippers (out in Europe, soon to be released in North America) is a singles collection but so sure-footed an art-punk statement of cohesively sequenced lean, brisk, stunning songs, that we might as well call it an album proper. And I can barely listen to other proper albums right now because they sound so boggy, artificial and calculated in comparison. (Not that these No Age kids are wide-eyed naifs and aren't themselves doing plenty of savvy image puppeteering and product positioning; their assent in online awareness, at least, has been remarkably swift.) The singles have been trickling my way for a while, and for most of last month I was almost exclusively under the hammer-thrash thrall of "Boy Void," but this is the song that's got me in its sharp and slippery teeth these days. Even when you know it's coming, even though the song's been building to it the whole time, the last 42 seconds are like the climactic scene of the best kind of Hollywood action pic, where the explosions and car chase and shoot em' up are diegetically predictable and necessary, but also totally unexpected because they so wonderfully exceed your expectations. You know, because the scene's so bloody great, it effects a kind of narrative rupture.

No Age's Myspace

Town and Country
- The Shot Heard 'Round the World

This is the other song that I love right now. With its tripartite structure and
multiple POVed morning-day-night panorama, it could be the awkwardly named Brooklyn band's "Day in the Life." Or a rough-spliced Dusk at Cubist Castle outtake. More country-wistful than town, it creeps in AM Gold on orange rooster feet, scatters its seeds in honeyed harmonies and sunsplashy chamber pop, then finally featherbeds down to sleepy guitar and toms. The more you play it, the more its nooks and crevasses divulge: midnight swimmers, bee stings, a tingly glockenspiel, bopping bassline, rhythms that shake and sway and caress. Its bulging middle is particularly lovely -- a hot and rippling summer day of forever-reaching blue-blue sky and white-white clouds .

Ten Songs for Town & Country (Artist direct, iTunes)
The band's Myspace

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sound of subtle atrophy

Collective Psychosis Begone

Hallelujah the Hills - Hallelujah the Hills

Raise the Flag On Your Sibling's Favorite Daydream
- Hallelujah the Hills

Why just burn the barn, when you can also torch the farmhouse, set the fields afire, watch the whole world go up in flames? Hallelujah the Hills implicitly asks this on its self-titled song, piling intensity on excess, instruments on lyrical erudition, unison heys on gleeful hallelujahs, like a teetering hill of broken furniture on a raging bonfire. It's a ludicrous song of ridiculous joy, of secular religiosity, a sing sing a song, sing it loud act of music-faith testifying. And actually ... it's kind of exhausting. Just try to listen sober to this admittedly greatish barroom anthem more than a few times in a row. (Don't worry, you can come back to it later and it retains its hyperactive power.)

About half of the songs on the band's new album operate in said accelerant-fuelled-burnburner
mode, and those that don't are burners too -- just slower -- reaching their inevitable conflagrations with a magnifying glass, noonday sun and some patience. And because they have such immediacy, such here-and-nowness, it's easy to miss (even with helpful signposts as "Wave Backwards to Massachusetts" and "It's All Been Downhill Since the Talkies Started to Sing") the album's thoughtful nostalgia, the care it takes in scrapbooking the past. "Raise the Flag" comes at you like memories do, in sepiaed bits and technicolor pieces:

Back in school again
You didn't think that I'd abandon you my friend
Here comes a silver bullet
To skim the leaves of poplar trees
And blessed be the minor keys
I'm so in love with you.

and in stark silences and fractious flares: a probing acoustic guitar, then a gradual glow of cello and cymbal,
children's chatter, distorted tape samples. Finally, rousing but melancholic refrains. The lyrics imply home secrets (illness? abuse?) and a schoolyard crush, but the song could be any episode in any childhood where one strong emotion is displaced on another, where a blur of feelings makes it hard to isolate the moment that everything changed, even less the reason.

From Collective Psychosis Begone (Misra, Amazon)
The band's

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Image: Shoko Ishikawa

River of Heaven - James Blackshaw

James Blackshaw has a remarkable new album (
his sixth, he's 25) of 12-string guitar instrumentals. But nothing on it shimmers as sustained or rings so clear and resounding as this earlier compilation track. Spellbinding and -bound.

From The Tompkins Square Sampler (eMusic).
The new album is The Cloud of Unknowing (Amazon, eMusic).
Blackshaw's website

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Each of their qualities

Image: I can't live without a poni

What I See - Vanessa

Unlike most women -- unlike most human beings -- this Vanessa seems enormously confident about the reach and potency of her personal charms. All of them want me, she sings in her knowing voice, and they come to me at night/ all of them love me/ they want to treat me right. Lucky girl you think. Or not. This flickering gothic-framed torch song also has a resigned piano and violins that sound like they've played funerals. It has precocious bitterness like a mid-October frost and a knowledge that once assumed can't be sloughed (I can tell you friend/ About each of their qualities -- lines that, incidentally, makes me irrationally sad). In its terrible ken are men who prey like wasps and tigers and demons (not to mention flowers that settle like a lead shawl around the neck), who even when they don't have names always have bodies. It's a pretty song and one that distrusts deeply -- even baiting misandry.

Vanessa's Myspace.

Let This Body Go - Death Songs

Death Songs is a sloppy Shaky Hands sideproject of Delffs brothers, bongos, tambourines, thigh slaps, trumpets that unravel like yarn, harmonies stretched like taffy. The players' dayjob requires tight, scrappy, spirited numbers, so Death Songs (as so many extracurricular bands) is more of a shoes-off-hair-down affair. "Let This Body Go" isn't a shambles, but it's a little shambolic and, despite its trad verse-chorus edifice and a legible melody, is vaguely improvisational, holding itself loosely together until sort of falling apart at the end in horn sputters and vocal wails. Which makes sense for a song that celebrates the shuffling off of this mortal coil.

Death Songs' Myspace

Food, etc:

So I've been searching high and low for a really good fruit cobbler recipe and this past weekend I made something close to perfection (from the current Fine Cooking magazine). I used very ripe nectarines and strawberries and it was extremely yum -- though I think I'll substitute blueberries for the strawberries once they're in season.

If you haven't already, check out more of Niki Kelce's
(above) lovely ink and colorwash dreamscapes at her Flickr page.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Clearly nothing

Image: blackgraphite

Run - Artisan

About a year ago, a coworker busted me for my
(apparently) frequent and unwarranted use of the word "clearly." I guess I often said stuff like, "Clearly, he's not gonna meet his deadline" (followed by an elegant chain of expletives), "Clearly, she thinks that the rest of us are morons" (also trailed by bad words). After getting called out, I became so self-conscious about using that word -- clearly -- that I pretty much stopped using it altogether. (Another coworker forwarded me an article about how distressingly common workplace profanity had become. It was pointed. I haven't stopped swearing like a longshoreman.) But it was probably a good thing, this extraction of clearly from my vocab. At best, the word's a lazy placeholder, a more emphatic, authoritative I think; at worst a flat untruth. Some things are reasonably plain (it is Friday morning, I am wearing a light blue shirt). But in this muddled and unpredictable life where even many of our own intentions are foggy and moves inexplicable, the thoughts and potential actions of other people are almost never transparent. And if "Run," indirectly says anything it's, well, possibly that.

A chunk of the song's lyrical content consists of this one assertion: Clearly you'll run from me. And it cites precedent (it's tradition) and implies just cause (Give me the inch/I'll take a mile), so it seems not-wrong to predict that, yes, she'll run. And yet this sweet
sparkling palindromic stop-start waltz is anything but running-sounding. Its fluttery guitars and ambling upright bass, its indolent oohs, intimate a flirtatious dance, willing-captive feet hemmed by a large round rug, window blinds slatting early evening summer sun on the wall, an almost-empty bottle of wine resting wet on a table. It's generous and open-ended and more about possibility than finality. The music says that something so sure like clearly is meant to be answered less sure, with a glance at the window, fingertips lightly, intentionally brushing an arm, a gentle curl of lips: We'll see, we'll see.

Artisan's Myspace
The London band has an EP called
I Hold My Breath (artist direct).

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A very big bang

Image: Chocolate buttons

My Four Leafed Clover - The Milk and Honey Band

So I'm sitting at my computer at work, headphones affixed, streaming some potentially great (?) (but more likely, indifferent or abysmal) unknown. Hmm, pleasant enough. Tap pound strum jingle handclap. Yeah yeah yeah, a little beige, a tad stuffy. Glance at my nails (desultory): Goddammit, is it too much to ask for a nail polish that doesn't chip 12 hours after I apply it? Some sweet harmonies. And Jesus (getting irritated), what about a band that knows The Beach Boys beyond "Caroline No"? I start thinking about lunch. Probably a Caesar salad. Possibly penne marinara from the deli downstairs. Ok, here we go: Swelling vocals ah-ahs drumroll building to something. I'm cold, where's my swe... whoawhoawhoa, what's this?! Bright shiny brass. Bare-faced bold!
Almost funky. Overbearing, even presumptuous! Goooood. Singing something about a four-leafed clover. Who cares? Bright shiny brass shiny brass. Oooh baby baby baby baby baby: I'm feeling lucky all of the sudden.

From The Secret Life of the Milk and Honey Band (Amazon, iTunes). Myspace

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Scenes from suburban lawns

Garden whimsy
Image: Anniebee

Rockaway Twp
- Ben + Vesper

Ben and Vesper start out singing "Rockaway Twp" indolent and familiar, weekend-lazy sprawled across seasoned lawn furniture, plastic tumblers of gin and tonics nestled in the tall grass at their feet, channeling their lethargy at not working. "We're cleaning up this town," they volunteer unconvincingly, like former city liberals long gone to suburban seed, lumping their own half-assed civic ambition with the building of Stonehenge (c'mon! how bad could Rockaway be?). Their accompaniment sounds as undecided -- a languid Motown bassline, loose, clanging piano chords, lots of hopscotching notes plucked, picked and tooted --
like you're catching different radio stations from half-a-dozen backyards. For the first approximately two minutes of the song, you suspect that if animated garden gnomes started playing in the kiddie pool, the (married in real life) couple wouldn't raise a collective eyebrow. Then comes the big sunsplashy pop finish: "I wanna live in the country," they croon, finally energized and finding a sentiment they can really support, an oboe gleefully dancing all over it. It's a gorgeous little moment.

From All This Could Kill You (Amazon, eMusic), Myspace

Box Elder - Pavement

A college friend raised in one of the posh pockets of Marin Country (No Cal) would have anyone who'd listen believe that the great tragedy of his young adult life was his parents up n' moving inland to Stockton. Fucking Stockton, he'd invariably call it, fucking Stockton, as if just having to visit on vacations (from, it should be pointed out, the equally unsophisticated, run-down industrial east coast city where we were attending school) was an imposition. I never heard Stephen Malkmus or Scott Kannberg slag their hometown in interviews, but based on my second-hand knowledge of the place I've always assumed that the town in "Box Elder" is a stand in for Stockton, and the song one of Pavement's rare autobiographical moments.

And yet ... there's something not quite honest about this track. Starting with the fact that while it doesn't directly quote REM, it pretty much paraphrases all of Fables of the Reconstruction -- and rather sarcastically. (In the early years, Pavement was all over The Fall, but you never doubt their sincerity; if anything, the Mark E. Smith idolatry feels embarrassing.) Then there's the way the song is performed: rote-strummed, lazy-drummed, altogether rushed through. It just occurred to me now (sometimes it takes me 15 years) that Pavement plays "Box Elder" like a cover, like a song they want to publicly disclose as an influence but aren't pretending to own. Now this may go back to some ambivalence toward REM (note to the kids: in the early 90s, it wasn't indie credible to be into the major-labeled arena-headliner). But it may also point to some mixed feelings toward Stockton, which, after all, supplied these guys with the means to record (and gloriously muck up) the godhead songs that eventually got collected on
Westing (By Musket and Sextant) (Amazon, eMusic). So I think it's safe to say that the track is at least partly a repudiation of that exhausted rock & roll gotta-get-outta-this-town trope. Especially when you consider that the destination in this song isn't New York or San Francisco, but the unprepossessing-sounding Box Elder.

Round the Web:

Exposing the rest of us for the slackers we are, Locust St. has begun another awesome (in every sense) multi-part series of words & images & music. This time out: "The 7 Means of Movement," beginning with walking (mp3s from Muddy Waters, Velvet Underground, Fats Domino, T. Rex, Patsy Cline, The Fall, lots lots more).

Heart on a Stick's got girl garage noise that goes by the cheeky sobriquet Shitt Hottt. Most of what passes for girl group in the 00s makes me weep (srsly, I think of the Crystals and Ronettes and Shangri-Las and I shed actual tears). But the sweaty, sexy "Boxx Damage" and "Tony Danza Dancetravaganza" are delicious.

A good list of overlooked novels. I've only (shameful to say) read a handful, but unreservedly recommend John Lancaster's Debt To Pleasure and Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. And I just picked up Ali Smith's The Accidental, which I plan to start as soon as I finish Edward P. Jones' The Known World -- this last not on the list.

Finally, The Outfit justifies eavesdropping.