Monday, July 23, 2007

Cocaine is crack, Blondie is black...

Five hours of sleep and one two-hour train ride and I have two things:

1. As hinted at before, The Menace may have been unfairly ignored when it was released. Now, I'm ready to make it official: it's underrated. Maybe the sequencing could be more thoughtful, and maybe "My Sex" doesn't need to exist, but it's got nothing to be ashamed about. Extra bit of trivia: The first Elastica album was released 12 years ago. Now that makes me feel old. Not as old as it probably makes Justine Frischmann feel, but I don't have any sassy Euro-sexiness to fall back on. So it's Justine: 1; Ghost: 0. Well played, Frischmann.

2. Nothing says welcome home more than a turkey Shorti, Wawa raspberry ice tea, and Herr's cheesesteak-flavored kettle chips. It's funny how the roads to home and heart attack are both paved with the same food wrappers.

I'm not one to sit and spin, but living well's the best revenge...

In my "later years," I've realized that being a huge R.E.M. fan means I have to also be a huge critic. Even their older songs need to go under the microscope, because to really appreciate them, and not just be a blind disciple, you need to recognize their missteps to appreciate their beauty. And I think this guy does a great job of that. But I think their newer stuff, especially, makes it easier to be a critic. In fact, their newer stuff largely renders them irrelevant even to fans such as myself. They were never the world's most dangerous band, and seemed to relish releasing singles based on mandolin lines and largely hookless songs held togther by stunningly subtle and beautiful bass lines ("E-bow the Letter"), but they were capable of some jaw-droppingly gorgeous moments. Hell, a lot more moments on one album than most bands could claim in a whole career.

So at the beginning of this month, R.E.M. performed five "working rehearsals" in Dublin, working out their new material. I downloaded the new stuff here, and they are what you'd expect froma bootleg: muddled sound quality, the audio picking up conversation in the audience. But from what I can make out, the shows really capture a band willing to make up for lost time. I'll go to bat for Up in a second, but Reveal and Around the Sun are, for the most part, pieces of shit. I think losing Bill really dealt a blow to their dynamic; Up is an interesting album because it was the band trying to find their way after the first real drama (besides the medical problems of the Monster tour), and that's why I defend it. Michael said something during that recording period along the lines of "a three-legged dog needs to figure out how to walk." And they tried. But the other two post-Berry albums are the sound of a band settling, without ever really deciding their new sound.

But one thing they had was their live shows. R.E.M. will never be U2 or Springsteen, but they put on a show, and a lot of their stuff benefits from the live setting. Songs like "Walk Unafraid" and "The Apologist," while fine on record, are different animals live, capturing the stridency and menace that both songs deserve, but didn't achieve as recorded. (At the same time, when I saw them on the Vote for Change tour, nothing could save "Leaving New York" or "All the Way to Reno.") And the new stuff really captures this, revealing a band that I think recognizes the extra charge their stuff gets when performed live. It sounds like it's going to be a rock album and will hopefully be more "These Days" than "Bad Day." It gives me hope for the first time in a while.

Besides Bill, I think the loss of Scott Litt as producer was also a huge blow. He could weave together disparate sounds into a cohesive whole, downplaying some parts that lesser producers would have driven into the ground, while given all elements their due. On first glance, I saw the choice of Jacknife Lee as producer was a last-ditch grab at relevance, and maybe it is. I really don't think his work on A Weekend in the City is anything to be proud of, but he could prove me wrong. I lived with the belief that Jim O'Rourke ruined Superchunk's Come Pick Me Up until I heard his work on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and realized Superchunk had just written a bunch of middling songs. God bless Lee if he takes these songs and fleshes them out while still capturing some of the live passion (and leaves the electronic sound effects to the Pat McCarthy era). At this point in the game he may have his work cut out for him, making R.E.M. relevant again, but who cares about relevance? For someone who ranks R.E.M. above Springsteen and the Stones as his favorite band, I just want him to help make them relevant to me again.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Richard thought his letters to his lover Mathilda were a mess...

So top ten songs on your iPod? Is this the internet bridge that all the kids are jumping from these days? Then count me in. This isn't scientific, since I recently had to reinstall the factory settings on the iPod, and most of these numbers come from how many times I played the songs on iTunes:

1. Our Love - Rhett Miller: I'll play this at my wedding. I have the song, now I need the lady.
2. Phantom Limb - The Shins: It's like a girl group song, but with dudes.
3. Grudge Fuck - The Pernice Brothers: Of all the Pernice Brothers songs... I think there was a time, a few months ago, where I just played this in a dark room and nodded. Repeatedly. Good times.
4. Girl Sailor - The Shins
5. Mistaken for Strangers - The National
6. Unless It's Kicks - Okkervil River: My feelings on this are known.
7. Hercules - Midnight Oil: Great song, underrated band.
8. Dress Blues - Jason Isbell: See supra note 6.
9. The Con - Tegan and Sara: Art-school girls. Gotta love them. Art-school girls and layers of keyboards. There was a great line on the Singles Jukebox over on Stylus, something about how they say "capsized" the way the author imagined Geddy Lee does. So art-school girls, layers of keyboards, and Geddy Lee references. They all tickle me pink.
10. Cold Days from the Birdhouse - The Twilight Sad: Again, see supra, note 6. And just for math's sake, the difference between my first song and this is 83 listens, and I've listened to "Our Love" less than 100. So math that up.

Honorable mentions? Sure.

11. My Rights Versus Yours - The New Pornographers
12. Turn Into - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
13. Read My Mind - The Killers
14. Once - Richard Buckner
15. A Pillar of Salt - The Thermals

Monday, July 16, 2007

Tell me that you need to, slowly...

Uh... The Go! Team covers Sonic Youth. It's like KidzBop for those kids whose parents give them mohawks and end up on SuperNanny. I'm a huge fan of the original (watching Steve Shelley play the drums with a maraca* flipped my shit in high school); this dog don't hunt.

(And credit where credit's due)

* Really? That's how it's spelled? Doesn't look right, not one bit.

Songs I Listened To Today, part 2

The tag line for the Bill Engvall Show is "meet a crazy family who's crazy for each other." I guess "zzzzzzzzzz" was too post-modern.

Built-In Girl - Wrens: This is one of those bands where everyone's like "Oh, the Wrens, they're so dreamy" but I've never really gotten around to it. Meadowlands is on my Wish List, but so is a bunch of jazz albums, so it's kind of an elephant graveyard. Anyway, this isn't necessarily what I expected the Wrens to sound like - I think I was thinking more Pernice Brothers and got something closer to Built to Spill - but what can I say? It's a toe tapper.
Pictures of Me - Elliott Smith: I miss Elliott Smith.
ELT - Wilco: I miss Wilco.
Generator - Elastica: This album is "exotic-looking," meaning it's got a big nose and a lazy eye, but I can't take my eyes off of it. One of the biggest disappointments of the last 10 years, but given time, stripped of (possibly unfair) expectations, it's... interesting. At least. And when the songs are on, like this one, they are absolutely on.
Untrusting You - Hellbender: Poor man's Jawbreaker. And that's actually a compliment because Jawbreaker R.O.C.K.s.
Make Me a Chevy - The Promise Ring: Soft spot in my heart, I have named you Nothing Feels Good.

The band in heaven plays my favorite song...

One thing you have to respect about Voxtrot's cover of Talking Heads' "Heaven": it sounds like a Voxtrot song. Sure, the singer uses some Byrne-esque vocal tics, but the music sounds like it could be an early sketch of, say, "Kid Gloves". They may as well have renamed it "Who the Fuck Are Talking Heads?" and called it a day. Compare: The National's "Pretty in Pink". Seems to be more in their wheelhouse.

I was in a band in college that covered "Pretty in Pink" and for some reason, I had the toughest time wrapping my head around the vocals, between the melody of the second verse and, I guess, the key of the song in general. It was like swimming upstream. Anyway, that's neither here nor there; these days I stick to dark rooms and try to wrap my head around Pennsylvania's disregard for compulsory counterclaims (yeah, you read that right: Pennsylvania only recognizes permissive counterclaims. It's like living in a cuckoo clock).

Saturday, July 14, 2007

My headphones, they saved my life...

So let's say, hypothetically you just broke down and bought not only a Carrie Underwood song on iTunes, but also a Faith Hill song. The question is: what do I buy on iTunes to balance the karma, or at the very least throw iTunes off the scent of my female country artist jones before it recommends Kelli Pickler to me...

UPDATE: Too late. Pickler's number four on my Just For You list. I've been branded.

But you won't be back there, all dressing in black, drinking sweet tea in styrofoam cups...

I don't often get in front of the curve. Usually I just pretend like I not only have the new album, but I downloaded their demos off some Dutch site before it came out, because I read about them in some Japanese hipster mag that I translated on Babelfish, and they were good, but I'm over them now, and I hear there's this band in Toronto where the lead singer is actually a dog in one of those hind-leg wheelchairs. Then I listen to my Miranda Lambert MP3s (she is a firecracker).

So I don't know if I'm out on front of this one, because I've heard low rumblings about this guy recently, and not from any cool source; I think it might be from free newspapers that don't tax my depleted attention span. Anyway, Jason Isbell. And "Dress Blues" in particular. Seriously, there's nothing like a weeping lap steel; it's up there with handclaps and horns.

Oh, and R.I.P. Mr. Butch. I think a little piece of my early twenties just went up in smoke.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Street tar and summer, they play a trick on my soul...

Speaking of being in the tank for something, I finally got around to buying the Twilight Sad's Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Summers. I've already threatened to marry the guy's brogue, so I don't think my feelings about the band are necessarily ambiguous (as opposed to my feelings for, say, Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend"). As an album, boy, it's just dreamy; I guess this is as much a byproduct of growing up in a lush, green country where the cities smell like cornflakes and are built upon the shells of a typhoid ravaged buildings (at least Edinburgh). It's just big drama, and you know what? It works, although it's not something that sticks with you; all the joy is pretty much ethereal beyond that "Cold Days from the Birdhouse". But still...

Of course, Spoon is still the apple of my eye. Don't tell Britt, but I downloaded a couple of songs beyond the band or label-approved choices. I have an excuse: I just couldn't help myself. I needed to hear as much as I could, on my own time, and listening to "Finer Feelings" while walking down the street, it was all I could do to not break out my white-boy shuffle. At the very least, I couldn't helping breaking into a goofy grin. But hearing this album in full bloom once again (I haven't been able to stream it since my internet connection went pear-shaped), goddamn. And the thing is, there aren't a lot of bells and whistles; this is just good old-fashioned songwriting, with some shake in the hips. It's gonna take a lot for this not to be the best album of the year. There, I said it.

And actually, for administrative purposes, and to crystalize it, here are the top five albums from the first half of the year:

1. Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
2. The Shins: Phantom Limb
3. The National: Boxer
4. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: Living With the Living
5. The Twilight Sad: Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters

Pretty solid. That fifth spot is really up for grabs, and the Twilight Sad, as much as I like that album now, may have the position by dint of it being a recent purchase, and Blonde Redhead or Feist (yeah, I know, it's Starbucks-rock) could shake out to be more deserving. I know the internet is waiting with bated breath to see how this turns out...

Buttermilk mouth, horseradish sweet...

Punch Drunk Love is on. Liked it when it came out, but right now it's all nerves and twitches; a big fucking headache. Adam Sandler and Emma Watson talking fast and over each other, with Jon Brion playing a souzaphone on the soundtrack or something.

I keep meaning to mention this site, which is something I should have thought of, but didn't, and probably couldn't do as well. Every review would be like "This is a really good song." Except for "Electron Blue": that song is bullshit.

What breaks this heart the most is the ghost of some rock and roll fan...

How good is this new Okkervil River song? Answer: Very, very good. iTunes is telling me I've listened to it 5 times since downloading it yesterday, but that's a pure, unabashed lie. I am completely fired up about this album at this point; both songs I've heard are great. I'm considering doing the "Buy Now, Download Later" deal, but do I want to cut into my limited funds when I have some money left on a Borders gift card? It's like Sophie's Choice for the (not-so) working poor.

Herewith are my top three anticipated albums:

1. PJ Harvey: White Chalk
2. Okkervil River: The Stage Names
3. New Pornographers: Challengers

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Songs I Listened to Today...

Yeah, this is a few days late. But I take the internet connection when I can get it so... this is a few days late.

I'm sweating, but mostly from my fear of the future, so take that into account. There are days when you just have to roll down the metaphorical car windows, even if only in your mind. Everyone laughs at me as I make a cranking motion; I'm so poor, my imaginary car doesn't even have power windows. But there are still songs, despite imagination or not, that demand windows being rolled down...

My Winding Wheel - Ryan Adams: Hearing a great Ryan Adams song is like hearing from an ex; you may be on good terms, but it's not the same.
Ear for Baby - The Thermals: Seriously, how good are these guys? (Answer: pretty good).
Our Life Is Not A Movie or Maybe - Okkervil River: I shouldn't like this band. Or maybe. I do. I really do.
What Jail Is Like - Afghan Whigs: The revolution will come, and the victors will ask, why wasn't this song the shit. And I'll shrug my shoulders, or as much as I can while being strung up from the rafters.
Late-Century Dream - Superchunk: And while strung up, I'll struggle to say, "It's not even their best song... seriously... far from it. Maybe not even top twenty. Listen to Indoor Living.
Scared Straight - Long Winters: There are songs, and then there are mix tape songs. This is a song everyone in the world should hear. If they did, we wouldn't be in Iraq. It's that good.
Working Girls (Sunlights Shines) - The Pernice Brothers: Seriously, get your hands on anyting this band does. The best. Someday one of their songs will be used in a shitty commercial, so be ahead of the curve. Amazing. Another song I put on a lot of mixes. "Contemplating suicide or a graduate degree." I've thought about this a lot, and I made the wrong choice.

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