Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Favorite Songs this Year!

My Favorite Songs this Year:

I genuinely love all of these songs, listened to them multiple times, and would recommend them to anyone. Order them into a playlist? Hey, be my guest.

"Bite the Bullet," "Albuquerque" - Neil Young (& Crazy Horse)
"Hey Ladies" - The Beastie Boys
"I'll Dream Alone," "Strange Powers," "Sad Little Moon," "Josephine," "100,000 Fireflies," "When You Were My Baby" - Magnetic Fields
"Let Me Have It All" - Sly & The Family Stone
"House of Cards" - Radiohead
"Gamma Ray" - Beck
"Mississippi" - Bob Dylan
"Winston's Atomic Bird," "Brown Submarine," "You Satisfy Me" - Boston Spaceships
"Toppin'" - Sex-S
"Portofino" - Teengirl Fantasy
"End of My Dream," "Thumbs Off," "Diamond Shine," "Big Cat," & c, &c - The Clean
"Splintered Bridges" - The Splinters
"Wolf Kidult Man," "Latch Key Kid" - The Fall
"Hey! Little Child" - Alex Chilton
"The Seus," "Garbage Heap," "Half Man," "When They Come to Murder Me" - Black Francis
"Way Out West," "Get What You Deserve," "Jesus Christ" - Big Star
"She's My Girl" - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffitti
"You & Me," "I Want You In My Life" - R. Stevie Moore
"This Whole World," "Slip On Through," "All I Want to Do," "Passing By" - Beach Boys
"Euphoria," "Bound to Lose" - The Holy Modal Rounders
"Blue Mountain," "Down at the Pool Hall Clickety Clack," "Tea Song," "No, I Won't Come (Go) Down No More" - Michael Hurley
"River Song" - Dennis Wilson
"Horus," "WULF" - Beef Donut
"Roof Rack," "Jullander Shere" - Cornershop
"Transparent Radiation," "Victory Garden," "When She Went Swimming" - The Red Krayola
"Magic Star," "Milking," "Our Angel's Ululu" - Deerhoof
"Palace of the Flames," "Quiver and Quake" - Elf Power
"Dear Doctor Doom," "Livin' On," "May the Circle Remain Unbroken," "Slide Machine" - 13th Floor Elevators
"Buffalo Ballet," "Barracuda" - John Cale
"Adventures Close To Home," "Black and White" - The Raincoats
"The Secret of Suicide" - Kramer
"American Gangster Time," "No Hiding Place" - Elvis Costello & the Impostors
"Baton Rouge," "Oh Jim," "Lady Day," "Paranoia Key of E," "Martial Law" - Lou Reed
"Beat Your Wings," "Dead Cloud" - Guided By Voices
"She's A Rainbow," "Citadel," "Rocks Off," "Happy," "Shattered," "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" - The Rolling Stones
"Brainstorm," "Time We Left This World Today" - Hawkwind
"Never Gonna Leave You Baby" - Retarded Muppit Farm
"Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" - Black Sabbath
"Kingdom Come" - David Bowie
"Cold Son," "Walk Into A Mirror" - Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks (from the Cold Son EP that was far superior to the much more milquetoast Real Emotional Trash)
"I Love The Living You," "Think of As One," "Sputnik" - Roky Erickson
"This Town Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us," "Hasta Mañana, Monsieur," "Beat the Clock" - Sparks
"Looking For Love (in the Hall of Mirrors)," "Here in My Heart," "Heaven in a Black Leather Jacket," "Dream Hat" - the 6ths

Saturday, December 20, 2008

2008: Always look on the bright side

Albums I got this year that I liked the best:
{Those that have already been covered will receive shorter blurbs to avoid repetition.}

Doremi Fasol Latido - Hawkwind
Fuck. I either bought this at the end of last year or the very beginning of this one. Whatever - it took me until July to give this one a proper spin. It's an overgrown masterpiece that lives somewhere in between psychedelia, prog, and early punk with some fucking amazing songs with silly lyrics: "Brainstorm," "Space is Deep" and "Time We Left This World Today." Blast off with Hawkwind.

Distortion - The Magnetic Fields*
Stephin Merritt pissed off a lot of people by making an extremely monochromatic album after the "variety-show" style 69 Love Songs and i, an album people only started liking two years after its release. Those who recognize the songcraft beneath the impressive wall of noise he built around himself are vindicated once again - this is yet another amazing collection of songs about despair, drinking, murder and occasionally, love. You know, pop music.

- The Clean
This year was my initiation into Kiwi-pop. I'm not saving up for my ticket down under yet, but in the meantime I can bliss out to the 40 or so songs on The Clean's fairly comprehensive career retrospective, which contains their first EPs with outtakes that you pretty much can't find anywhere else - thus making this essential for anyone even remotely interested. You can hear them transition to an experimental pastoral band in disc 2 or just keep jamming to the instant classics from the band's early days. Either way, this is amazing stuff.

Wasps' Nests - The 6ths
The Mag. Flds. played a couple very good songs off this record when I saw them play a paradoxically acoustic set at the so-called "Noise Pop" festival this year, so I shelled out 7 bucks to get this one used. After several listens, it clearly stands out as one of Merritt's lesser known masterpieces. Featuring half independent music greats (Lou Barlow, Mac McCaughan, Dean Wareham, Georgia Hubley, Chris Knox, Robert Scott) and half people that promptly fell off the radar (almost everyone else), Merritt's occasionally bleak, occasionally ecstatic gems are fleshed out into universality in true cabaret style. Highly recommended.

- Black Francis*
He's back. Begun as a session for a single B-side, CT/FB/BF couldn't help himself and jizzed out seven great new songs with punk furor and abandon. The best follow-up we could have hoped for to last year's brilliant Bluefinger (which I have come to realize does not contain one bum song on it), this EP or mini-album or whatever it is only reinforces Mr. Thompson's renewed songwriting vitality. Hope that "Golem" sountrack is just as delicious.

Mountain Battles - The Breeders*
Listen to this one back to back with SVNFINGRS and you can trick yourself into thinking you're hearing the new Pixies album. Sorta. The Breeders took almost as long to make this as they did for the so-so Title TK but this time, actually WORKED on an album for most of that waiting period. Pay off: their best album to date, which encompasses folk, Mexican crooning, Microphones-esque musings and oh yeah, indie-rock - but still sounds incredibly cohesive, with a dark enigmatic cloak over the proceedings. Are the Breeders grappling with mortality? Best to check this one out and decide for yourself.

Imperial Wax Solvent - The Fall*
Mark E. Smith continues to be my personal hero by living against all odds. Luckily, he also makes great records that aren't just testaments to his longevity or increasingly cliched attitude. One of his best albums this decade (chuckle), he's exploring new textures in the Fall, having learned a few tricks from his time in Mouse On Mars collab. Von Sudenfed. The band is now just one big rhythm machine to be cut up with Smith raving in sliced digital audio. Throw on a terrible Groundhogs cover ("Strange Town") and MES has done well for himself again in 2008.

(Unnamed Collection) - Moondog
This stuff will be on the classical stations in 100 years. Until then, you can look really cool by getting into one of the most important composers of the 20th century before everyone else.

Bull of the Woods - 13th Floor Elevators
Coulda been their best album - if only, if only. Instead, we'll just settle for this being a great album.

Third/Sister Lovers, Live - Big Star
Live is raw pop beauty, Third is pop gone shut-in. Big Star is pop that never popped but lives on in the hearts & minds of those that know better.

The Climaxxx - Sex-S*
Recorded in glorious laptop jizzery, Sex-S' debut album is inconsistent, adolescent and also fucking hilarious with surprisingly great beats. New anthems like "Toppin'," "Demons," and "Luxury" have catchy enough choruses to stick in your craw forever but Sex-S' scatological sensibility and bizarre free-association provoke return listens time and again. Also, it's free (if you missed the limited-edition CD-R only available at Pehrspace). 

Like Flies on Sherbert - Alex Chilton
Punky southern critically acclaimed drunk makes messy album and it still sounds great thirty years later after the idiots that derided it said their peace. Let "My Rival" continue to lead us into a better musical future.

Daddy's Highway - The Bats
The Bats have a great thing, so it's good that they do it over and over, because it never gets old to me. Boy-girl harmonies, gorgeous-sounding rhythm guitars, a REALLY FUCKING good bassist whose tone recalls a distorted, plucked piano and endless plaintive hooks. Those that don't feel the same are those that call this album too long or repetitious. Daddy's Highway is a binge fix of pop lovin' that lasts an hour but pulls at my heart strings hard enough to stay with me long afterward.

Introduction - The Red Krayola
Art-rockers! Don't live fast, die young: 50-somethings can still rock and be weird AND make listenable, catchy tracks so let's celebrate Red Krayola's best (in my estimation) album in their autumn.

Corky's Debt to His Father - Mayo Thompson
Some things are classics waiting for you to discover them, and aren't on every fucking "Top Albums of All Time" list. This is one of them.

California Gold - Retarded Muppit Farm*
Are RMF maturing? Even when they pretend to be child molesters ("Where Have All The Children Gone?") it's done in measured, well-developed verses that build the tension to a masterful climax. Sonically, it's their best yet, with the Casio and Yamaha backing tracks bathing in digital reverb and increased guitar shading. And the best songs are nothing short of monster hits, particularly "Never Gonna Leave You Baby" and "Love Will Take a Back Seat." Call it their "safe for work album" (almost) and one of the year's most rewarding ones.

Bound to Lose (DVD) - Holy Modal Rounders
As good as a new Holy Modal Rounders album, we get glimpses into the strange journey that has been the lives of Stampfel & Weber. Cross your fingers for yet another reunion.

Kimono My House, No. 1 In Heaven - Sparks
Sparks Sparks Sparks. What can one say about Sparks that can't be said better by their music? I often say "Like Queen but far meaner and wittier," but that still feels like selling them short. Kimono My House is glam but not, completely Wagnerian in scope, as if it were trying to outdo Phil Spector with a five-piece band. No. 1 in Heaven, with its aerosol-can production, is much more danceable and coked-up, a style that fits the Mael brothers perfectly. Just go listen to these already - trying to describe a band this great makes me feel stupid.

The Splinters - The Splinters*
I wrote a very long entry below on this six-song EP, which should say it all. Best new band this year.

Woman's Gotta Have It - Cornershop
Took me a while to pick this one up (it was released in '95 and I've been listening to this band since '00), but it still sounds pretty fresh, considering how tired the genre-world-music blend cliche has become. Cornershop might be the most naive-sounding band of all time, and their music is frequently stripped naked, but these qualities might be why their records survive (to me at least, people seem to laugh when I tell them I like this band). Barely any bass on this extremely fun and low-key record, but plenty of half VU, half Pussy Galore, half something else (150%) gems on here - plus some Punjabi thrown in for good measure. You can get this one for $5 like I did and see for yourself, but Cornershop always win me over.

* = released this year.

Next up: fave. songs, best shows, etc.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

End of Year List: People we don't have to pay attention to in 2009

I'm always the last to figure these things out. I must be a born apologist, humanist, or any other one of those titles that means you delude yourself into thinking people are better than they really are.

If you read Michael Azerrad's amazing Our Band Could Be Your Life, you'll find out John Lydon/Johnny Rotten has been disillusioning his admirers since the early 80s at the latest, basically by being his arrogant, self-serving, sellout self. I don't own any records Lydon has been associated with since Public Image Ltd.'s The Flowers of Romance, but for some reason I never really wrote Lydon off. Sure, he's an asshole who hasn't made any worthwhile music since the beginning of the 1980's - and basically no music at all since the '90s, and he's been on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! and has contradicted nearly every one of his supposedly iconoclastic principles just as soon as he established them, even working as a Los Angeles real estate agent, but something kept me hoping. For what? That maybe he'd wake up, stop becoming this despicable caricature of himself and return to being the insatiable music fan that made worthwhile music in turn, not trading in vacuous "fuck-you" statements for words of substance.

This year I learned this would never happen. Lydon first hit the tabloids when the lead singer from the admittedly talentless Bloc Party claimed members from the Johnny Rotten entourage roughed him up with a healthy dollop of racism after he had the "temerity" to ask about a PiL reunion. Reading the news, I was torn between feeling like it really had very little to do with Lydon's own beliefs (and considering his long history of befriending black figures on the music scene, including Jamaican legends, Afrika Bambatta and Don Letts, it seems fairly impossible) and doubt over the minute amount of integrity he seemed to cling to. And cling he did, threatening lawsuits if anyone dared call him a racist.

Not too long after, charges were filed for him roughing up a female assistant for booking the wrong hotel room. This time, there was no vehement denial, no press statements and no defense, so one can only assume the claim is true.

Then the above commercial, in which Mr. Lydon officially sold his Public Image off to his favourite brand of butter. It speaks for itself.

John Lydon, Johnny Rotten, That Cunt or whatever else you could call him is not some revolutionary genius or daring iconoclast. His statement was made over thirty years ago and was refuted soon afterwards with his embrace of false celebrity. Like most frontmen, his best work was made with people he needed just as much as they needed him (Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, Jah Wobble, Keith Levene, Martin Atkins), without whom he has suffered greatly. Without solid music to back him up, Lydon has been on a downward spiral since his last decent album (The Laswell-produced Album), becoming more well known for mouthing off in the press and mounting needless Sex Pistols reunions than actually making music. This year, he became a tabloid fixture, one who makes "clever" butter commercials (only because he likes the brand, of course, of course), keeps racist pals and hits women. May he never regain his credibility.

I'll always treasure Never Mind the Bollocks, First Issue, Metal Box, Paris au Printemps, and The Flowers of Romance, but from now on I'll prefer to think of the piercing, whining tenor that graces those records as belonging to someone long gone to the ever after. Perhaps, the biggest tragedy in all this is how Lydon bought into the "public image" he so sardonically satirized in the 1978 single of the same name to become the marginalized cartoon he is today: the angry, egotistical, spiky-haired little asshole with a big mouth saying absolutely nothing.


He was never that great of a guitar player or a producer, and he wasn't ever doing anything new with music. Hell, even 60s pastiche had been done time and again by the time Jack White & the briefly enigmatic White Stripes stepped on the scene. So he wasn't even the first to be a copycat.

The White Stripes succeeded because they wrote some catchy songs and performed them with well-measured chutzpah in a style that wasn't typical of bands in the early part of this decade: slash-and-burn, lo-fi, kinda punky and Stonesish at the same time. They never actually made an album that was great from start to finish. But that was never quite the point with the Stripes: they were about being hit and run rock band that acted on impulse and could be brilliant, silly, rocking or just kind of dumb depending on what came out of the grab bag.

How sad it was, then, when Jack White started a really boring "normal" rock band, The Raconteurs, forgot how to write worthwhile songs, and then spread the mediocrity over to his flagship band with the abysmal Icky Thump. He broke the hearts of all the people that believed him when he said he objected to selling out (present company included) and made a Coke commercial. And now, he's jumped the rock-and-roll shark by making one of the worst Bond themes I've ever heard (though, to be fair I don't think I've heard many past 1997's "Tomorrow Never Dies.")

Yes, the tired old institution of the Bond theme could use some fresh blood. But really, most of the Bond themes of the last twenty years have been performed by artists on the cusp of a dramatic fall from relevance: A-ha (who performed the last one really worth hearing, "The Living Daylights"), Tina Turner, Shanhia Twain, Gladys Knight & the Pips. And it seems here, Mr. White will follow suit. Even Peter Travers went out of his way to say it "sucks." The bomb fuse is set once Alicia Keys was invited on the track, a Grammy-hounding agent of mediocrity if there ever was one, whose only great moment was Bob Dylan hornily namechecking her at the beginning of Modern Times. Then once the song begins we get Jack's now cliche "overdriven" guitar tone, an appropriately evil-sounding piano riff and big thunderin' hip-hop drums. Then the vocals - is he rapping again on this shit? Wasn't this guy supposed to be the alternative to white rappers in the first place? The one-note chorus is even sloppier (and far stupider) writing than anything on Get Behind Me Satan, which he practically made up as he went along. It would win "most annoying song on local so-called rock stations" this year if it hadn't been for the Cold War Kids trying to pretend to be Jack White and sounding even worse.

Fucker always sounded like a bad McCartney impersonator anyway. Good riddance.


Do I really need to say anything? This probably doesn't require any comment from this author. Is he really that big an insecure asshole or is it all some clever act to weed out the "real fans"? While those who give a shit sort it out, let's just stop paying attention to Mr. Corgan altogether - positive or negative, he wants it too badly. Maybe in the next 20 years.

Up next: more positive sentiments regarding 2008.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Thoughts on: The Splinters' first EP

In an apparent tribute to GBV's "Propeller"...

I first encountered The Splinters in February of this year, when they put up a bare-bones MySpace as their introduction to the world. I believe they had three songs, and a short list of influences that included The Shaggs. For show or serious? I pondered. Sure, I'm friends with people that listen to bands like The Shaggs for pleasure (I'm one of them), but it's one thing to cite a radically defiant, somewhat revolutionary, and often tuneless band as an "influence" and quite another for the claim to be supported by your music. The track "Splintered Bridges" answered my question.

Tape hiss, an almost Native-American drum beat and three nasal female voices singing in unity over a chugging garage riff (played on acoustic, naturally) made for one of the more unique statements of purpose I've heard from a band in a while. And yeah, it kind of sounded like The Shaggs after a couple more timekeeping lessons. The melody was half 60s soul, half playground chant: "I don't want you to go awaaaay and I don't want you to stay." Like a playground rhyme, it was instantly memorable, and like a classic recording, it just seemed like one of those songs that should have been written all along, unpretentious and unaffected; people making music because they like to do so.

Since then, the band mushroomed into an important part of the Bay Area scene, and for once, it was well deserved. Adding drummer Courtney Gray, they could deliver incendiary, clipped performances broken up by nervous humor. The band swiftly moved from being an alien four-track project to a real rock band. Some bands can't survive the transition without becoming boring or conforming to indie/rock/indie-rock cliches, but they only got better.

The debut EP in question, then, is a testament to the promise the band continues to show without completely tipping their hand. Recorded in digital in a co-operative house bedroom studio, the record doesn't quite capture the rough-and-ready garage punk of the live act, to the disappointment of some but to the benefit of neophytes that don't collect scratchy 7"s.

Nights on the Bay Area garage circuit have done the group well: there's no question that they're a cohesive unit. The contrast of Ashley Thomas' chugging rhythm guitar against Caroline Patramian's single-note leads echos underground guitar duos like The Cramps' King Congo Powers and Poison Ivy Rorsharch, or even The Fall's Craig Scanlon and Brix Smith. Courtney Gray and Lauren Stern, drums and percussion, respectively, are the band's secret weapon, laying down a solid rhythmic foundation that often recalls Motown's one-two snap beats and allows the group to still groove sans bass guitar.

"Splintered Bridges" leads the set in a revamped surf-punk version, coming off as less homegrown this time so much as moshworthy; ironically, this one usually closes sets. The equally brash "Ch-Ch-Ch-CHA" and "Oranges," then, flesh out the Splinters' unspoken manifesto. "Ch-Ch-Ch-CHA," using its title's onomotapea as the chorus' hook, describes an all-out girl gang brawl in a park, culminating with a repeated screech of "They thought we stole their friends/They thought we stole their friends/They thought we stole their friends/They thought we stole their friends/Yeah, right." The sexual politics behind the fuck-and-fight lyrics of "Oranges" are too much for me to analyze uninformed, suffice to say they endow the song with a deliberate, even comical, nastiness, with lines like: "That's how she did it/She got in my pants/And I hate her for it/Why won't she just fuck off" and "I grabbed at her crotch/I tried to hurt her badly/But instead it got her off."

A lot of what makes these songs so significant is the redefinition of the "I" within the world of the Splinters: When they sing "Let me tell you" or "I had to do a double take, 'cause she was with a man," all three "lead singers" blurt the lines, making for a collective-first person: an all-for-one, one-for-all mob mentality, the same as when The Damned used to shout "I'm gonna stab your back" in unison, or when the Raincoats would desperately ask, "Is it love when I see your face in the rails?" By virtue of the ensemble vocal, in that moment those groups speak for you and me and everyman/everywoman, letting us into their gang and into their headspace for the fleeting moment a pop song can provide - to share their trevails, fears, suspicions, and/or every other nasty emotion that makes pop worth listening to.

"Electricity" is the newest number on the set, and probably the best suited to the cold, clear production style of the EP: a haunting, ghostly number that finds the band exploring their post-punk influences as well. It's their most radically different number thus far, and in the running for their best, melodically sophisticated and brimming with tension. "Sea Salt Skin" provides the set's hangover; as if the clinically depressed cousin to "Splintered Bridges," the song also depicts a deteriorating relationship but with increased resignation and desolation. The Lauren Stern-led "Worry," often used by the band for the audience to cool their jets mid-show, concludes the EP with a more traditional-sounding lament against an skeletal acoustic backing. While not recorded on four-track, the tune is the EP's tie-in to their tape-hiss beginnings, a lilting ditty tracked quickly with minimal instrumentation.

Even at 6 songs, the EP is a bit scattered in direction, if only because the group seems to have too many ideas to fully cauterize their sound yet - which is a good thing. The set does not encapsulate the "essence" of the band, but as a first salvo, it's particularly effective, featuring unusually strong songwriting and a band full of chutzpah (as opposed to the other thing bands are usually full of). And basically, you'd be a fucking idiot not to pay attention to what this band does next - their live performances alone position them as successors to bands like The Raincoats or the Slits (see "Boston Buys" for how I feel about them).

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Regarding: prolific artists

There's a problem in creative societies in that those that are truly prolific and have too many ideas end up creating work that is doomed before it's out of the box in terms of public reception. Example: The Fall, Robert Pollard/GBV, Jay Reatard, etc.

It still seems that in critical consideration of the aforementioned (and many other artists, for that matter) artists' work, the prevailing attitude is "here comes another one." Fuck you. You should treat everything on its own terms to some degree, otherwise creation is futile. Did they write "here's the new one" about Mingus? No, because motherfucker was expected to bust out a couple albums a year at least. Example: I bought Pollard's new band, Boston Spaceships' new album. It's fucking great and has some of the best songs he's ever written on it because he's just as good as ever. Yeah, here's the new one. Thank God. I hear he's got the next two BS albums lined up already: bring 'em on.

If there's a big problem with that, just go listen to The Beatles and Radiohead indefinitely, and forever cherish your mediocrity.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

DVD review: "Bound to Lose"

The Holy Modal Rounders are probably one of the greatest bands there ever were, if you're using the term "band" as loosely as possible. Sure, I admire plenty of "bands" that have rotating lineups around a single leader, but with the Rounders it becomes clear that at times no one has really led the band. Quote from fiddler Robin Remaily: "For a while, I thought they were my band. Then I realized they were nobody's band." But general conception holds that Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber, the founding members, are the important Rounders, despite the band's existence in many more permutations, including a seven-piece Oregon-based jam rock band minus Stampfel, the "Unholy Modal Rounders" augmented by Michael Hurley and minus Weber, or "The Moray Eels," Stampfel's attempt at having a non-Rounders psychedelic rock band that only got his former group a one-off deal with Elektra instead. Add to that the fact that Stampfel and Weber have often gone decades without contact and you've got a very shambolic organization indeed.

I've loved them since I was in high school listening to The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders, an album I still hold up as one of the greatest ever made despite the fact that most coherent Rounder Stampfel calls it garbage. The band is able to take folk, country and blues and transport it from coffeehouse nostalgia, hokeyness or limp Americana into something captivating, irreverent, funny and halfway modern. How? A preternatural gift and lots and lots of speed. Or so the legend would have it.

Bound to Lose
then, attempts a retrospective at the mercurial Rounders as they reform for what might be the last go-round. Present day Peter Stampfel comes off like a cross between Kermit the Frog and Jimmy Stewart, but live performances find him full of fire regardless. Steve Weber, on the other hand, is in a category of his own, some bizarre emaciated burnt-out cartoon character, complete with unwieldy long grey hair and a pointy long beard, who's always on stage. Stampfel, now happily married with kids, is easily set up as the straight man to Weber's self-proclaimed hedonism, (despite the former's fifteen-year long methadrine abuse) but the relationship is far less Martin-Lewis and far more Herzog-Kinski. They're both fucked up. Add to the mix long-suffering yet easygoing bass player Dave Reitsch (who I will always rate due to his absolutely beautiful bass line on Have Moicy's "Slurf Song") and Remaily, who's constantly concerned with the members' physical longevity, and you know it's not going to be the smoothest of tours.

When the band can get it together to really deliver this or that tune, they're captivating. The band's years and personal conflicts really melt away in the midst of "Dook of the Beatniks" (an unreleased Stampfel song), "Same Old Man," etc. When not able to do so, Reitsch furrows his brow, Stampfel and Weber bicker like an old married couple and another kind of film emerges. It becomes evident that Stampfel has made an almost impossible transition from speed freak to responsible working husband and dad almost overnight some time ago, while Weber, often drunk and missing an indeterminable number of teeth, chooses to act out a persistent rock-and-roll fantasy. In his most affected moments, he comes off as a delusional, cantankerous but nevertheless charming old man. At his most lucid, however, he seems perfectly aware of his standing in life, and blissfully unaffected by it. "My father was apparently a bit of a philanderer and a bit of a tippler," he says in one of his more private moments. "My grandmother said I'd turn out just like him, and to a large extent" - he cracks a smile and nods slightly - "I have." Luckily, he appears to have found out a way to gain sufficient nutrients from copius amounts of beer and cigarettes, although the last shot in the film does find him eating (gumming?) a sandwich made, presumably, by his 80-year old mother.

In the midst of Weber's web of chaos, Stampfel manages to hold the group together with a bit of neuroses and self-deprecating humor. His love for his partner, at times seeming one-sided, seems to have kept the project going, through Weber's lack of enthusiasm for new material, practices or most anything involving effort. It is good, then, the film constant intersperses some of the band's best work - "Half a Mind," "Bound to Lose," "Griselda" - to remind us why it's all worth it for him.

Bound To Lose is not too radically different from other (good) band documentaries - rounding up contemporaries (Dave Van Ronk, Peter Tork of the Monkees (?!)), critics (Byron Coley, Christgau), old band members (e.g. playwright Sam Shepherd) and Dennis Hopper (née Hooper) to sort of halfway tell the band's history and lend them legitmacy within whatever niche they carved out for themselves over 40 years of music. Its narrative arc is only really defined at the end when Weber, rather than show up to the band's 40th anniversary show, disappears, never to be heard from again. The film then ends with a collective sad shrug from the x number of other band members (there are suddenly a lot more of them at the anniversary concert) as they admit that they don't see Weber living long enough to come to his senses again (although, to date, five years after the failed concert, he perseveres, God bless). Stampfel insists it's no great loss if he and Weber never play together again, but the laundry list of masochistic punishment he says he WON'T engage in as a result of the loss seems to speak otherwise.

Like the best documentaries/DVDs, Bound to Lose will attract both the neophyte and the fan and satisfy both. Biggest complaints: Michael Hurley is not even MENTIONED once in the couse of the film, despite the fact that his songs appear on several Rounders albums and Stampfel made one of his best albums (Have Moicy!) alongside him. And I would have appreciated a full "Fucking Sailors in Chinatown" in the extras - is there a recorded version of this song anywhere??

I would have complained that Antonia was not included in the proceedings - despite the fact that she was quite possibly the group's best songwriter ("Bird Song," "Griselda," "Low Down Dog") - but she is in the extras, where it is clear why she was left out of the film. Battered from years of methamphetamine abuse, she appears to have accrued some type of early-onset dementia and disturbing nervous tics, in addition to looking 30 years older than she is. Her inclusion would have weighed down the proceedings with a swift reminder of how not all long-term drug addicts live charmed lives.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The death of selling out? Of Montreal's Skeletal Lamping

Selling out may or may not exist, but "indie" music is a thing of the past. Once a label that referred to a bunch of bands mainly comprised of dorky white guys in their 20s loading barely functional Econoline vans to play small club shows across the country and recording guitar rock albums on shoestring budgets, the term has now become one of umbrella, encompassing jangly pop, grunge, metal, electronica, rap and even jazz. These days, "indie" is generally just the necessary stepping stone to mainstream acceptance, a precedence set in the late 80s and early 90s that has more or less infested today's current music scene - not an artistic lifestyle that requires doing promotion, performance, recording etc., with the most minimum of costs for maximum efficiency and creative output.

Case in point: Of Montreal, a flagship indie band (and honorary Elephant 6 member), had their show in New York this month feature a segment with leader/mastermind Kevin Barnes prowling the stage atop a fucking white horse.

Unless he's riding that horse between venues to save money on gas, I doubt that this is an example of what Mike Watt called "jamming econo."

Of Montreal caught my attention last year when Mr. Barnes wrote a long blog where he attempted to explain that "Selling Out Isn't Possible." The blog came in the face of some rather negative criticism for his/the band's providing a cheerful little jingle to Outback Steakhouse. I was fairly certain that Smashmouth effectively disproved Barnes' title argument ten years ago, but I held back contempt long enough to lay into his opening paragraph:
Are you a sell out? Yes. Don't let it bother you though, cause apparently I am also a sell out, and so are your parents and everyone you've ever known. The only way to avoid selling out is to live like a savage all alone in the wilderness. The moment you attempt to live within the confines of a social order, you become a sell out. Once you attempt to coexist you sell out. If that's true, then selling out is a good thing. It is an important thing. If we didn't do it, we'd be fucked, quite literally, by everyone bigger than us physically who found us fuckable.
At which point I closed the window and wrote off the man's career, much as I did Jack White's in 2006 when I learned, after reading a couple early interviews where he said he had no interest in selling out, that he had agreed to do a Coke commercial and attempted to soften the blow by calling it a "unique songwriting opportunity." A 60-second song for a giant paycheck sounded like a fairly commonplace opportunity to me. (Curiously, he hasn't made a good album since.)

Look, selling out - in moderation, not excess - doesn't bother me. Like Kev pointed out, almost everyone does it - my parents, your parents, your heroes, my heroes (They Might Be Giants, Mark E Smith, Stephin Merritt, Sly Stone, etc). It is a romantic thought to think that all art should be sacrosanct, untouchable by the commercial industry, and that true artists can't be bought at any price. But the truth is artists are looking for their paychecks as well; most of them just don't get them every couple weeks, which makes easy, plentiful money all the more attractive. I get angry when an artist who previously considered himself above the practice caves and tries to explain it away. I get angry when bands that have had mid-level exposure for under a year in the "indie world" are already doing promos (e.g. Hold Steady, Tapes 'N Tapes). And I get angry when artists who clearly sold out - for whatever reason, I don't care - write essays in attempts to prove that selling out doesn't exist because everybody else is doing it, and it's one of the few ways to make money as an "indie" band. So the practice exists but it doesn't? Bullshit.

Funny thing, though - I hadn't even listened to an Of Montreal record at the time. So it was with much trepidation I began investigating the band's recent career this past summer, beginning with an iTunes purchase of last year's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? Why? I read a Tape Op article with Barnes, where he spoke of the inspiring creative process that goes into his records, many of which have been recorded by him alone, with a ridiculously simple setup onto a laptop computer. I was surprised to find many of the more recent albums (sadly, I haven't found a used copy of Sunlandic Twins, so I'm missing a link) to be adept spaz-pop explorations. I was unsurprised to find much of it not particularly remarkable - as a lot of merely enjoyable music gets labeled these days - but I hold particular affection for 2004's Satanic Panic in the Attic. The two "full band" records I got from a friend (Gay Parade and Adhil's Arboretum) irritated me to the point of never listening to either of them past their fifth song. But whatever the case, it was clear I had underestimated Barnes and his enterprise.

This year, all eyes - even mine! - are on Of Montreal. Their stage shows continue to get more elaborate and ridiculous and pull bigger crowds. Their last album was a confessional hit and had the song "Gronlandic Edit," a single that encapsulated all the angst, anxiety confusion and depression one could conjure up from the words "on my own," while melting it away with the most danceable, bassy groove imaginable. They sold out but ended up with more fans anyway. And even Rolling Stone are creaming their drawers over the new album.

And what about the new album, you ask? It's more than a little tied in with that whole "sellout" debacle, as Barnes let us know last year in his treatise: "I realized that the negative energy that was being directed towards me really began to inspire my creativity. It has given me a sense of, 'well, I'll show them who is a sellout, I'm going to make the freakiest, most interesting, record ever!!!'" That sort of naive kneejerk reaction would leave him open to all kinds of sarcasm and scorn from heavier critics, but my feeling on such ambition was simple - go make the record that way! I love music, and I want to hear what someone's version of the freakiest, most interesting, record ever is, always!

Well, Skeletal Lamping is not Trout Mask Replica, so it lost the bid for "freakiest, most interesting" etc. (You may wonder, is Beefheart's magnum opus really the high water mark for that kind of thing? The answer is unequivocally yes.) However, it is a unique album that will divide a lot of people's opinion and polarize the band's fanbase. It is the sound of someone trying desperately to not write anything approaching a hit single, or anything else that could be used to sell grilled beef. It's the product of somebody who has too many ideas too quickly. And, perhaps most importantly, it's the result of a music-lover having fun with music.

But is the damn thing any good? If you read every other fucking review on this album you'll find out it's about a black bisexual transsexual named Geordie Fruit, blah blah blah....in summation, the album allegedly centers around some preposterous sexually-charged themes that result in all kinds of plot lines and character developments throughout the album that are impossible to follow (at least for me), and therefore not really important to the music itself. But the idea is a wonderful distraction for reviewers who want to avoid the actual contents of the record - the kind of people who would have seen Bowie for Ziggy. So no answers derived from this fairly minor sideshow.

The truth is, Skeletal Lamping is both a daring, inventive album full of expert pop hooks and also a pretentious, bloated failure with not one memorable tune on the whole thing. You will read reviews that say one of these two things, but both hold.

How? Much of it has to do with the ADD construction of the individual songs. Barnes let himself run away with his imagination, building up 30-second to 2-minute chunks of songs and digitally pasting them together. Sounds like plenty of fun, but listening to it is both exhilarating and a chore. Since pop music (a game I assume Of Montreal is still engaged in) relies upon some degree of repetition for success (Phil Spector, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Steve Reich have all relied upon this simple technique), the overt multiple-personality disorder inherent in almost all of Skeletal Lamping makes good and bad hooks vaporize from memory as soon as the iPod moves onto the next track. Perhaps Barnes' rapid-fire songcraft is meant to suggest the kind of sexual promiscuity the character whats-his-name is engaged in - why get attached to a cheap fuck if you have another one waiting in the adjoining motel room?

I don't give a fuck if songs are short and move on quickly to completely different type of song, which is why I'm an enormous GBV fan. But Lamping leaves you no time to breathe - once you hit play on "Nonpareil of Favor," the album expects you to strap in for the rest of the ride, segueing from one song to the next - hell, segueing in the MIDDLE of songs - instantly. So when I finished "Id Engager" today, I sat in silence for a minute or so, and realized I couldn't recall one hook from the near hundreds I had just listened to. Like cramming too much for a test too late in the game, I couldn't remember a damn thing.

However, I did remember that among the careening choruses, verses and bridges there were sections of sublime musicmaking, moments where I felt myself and Barnes relax for a moment to enjoy pure tunage, free of pretension or disconnected plots. Perhaps when he eased up on the 10 tracks of falsetto, or felt content to put in a blessed 30 seconds of instrumental interlude. Provocative sexual lyrics that mention metaphorical dick-sucking, real pleasure-pusses and crystal meth cooking will grate on those approaching this album with a bit of trepidation, but for me they provided respite from the churn of song after idea after fragment with moments of joyful irreverence and levity. Skeletal Lamping, consequently, is at its best and most memorable when its audible that Barnes is enjoying himself and not simply on manic songwriting overdrive.

A side note should be made that the production here is officially not doing Of Montreal any favors. Every record since Barnes went digital (Satanic Panic) has run the risk of sounding a tad cookie-cutter, with vacuous drum loops and midrangy synths often dominating mixes. Considering the spontaneity of his writing and recording, I suppose this is a necessary evil, but as far as I can tell, Lamping is the fourth record that exists within this sonic range. Even though I hear the band experiment with a couple more plugins on Logic here and there and hark, is that a real drum kit I hear on the third from last track? - it's baby steps to expand the current Of Montreal sound, which is becoming increasingly cauterized with each successive album. Danger! Multiple-album monotony has threatened everyone from AC/DC to the Ramones to Pavement to the Beastie Boys, and it reflects poorly in each case.

If Barnes' main mission in Skeletal Lamping was to make an album that doesn't sound like the work of a sellout, he should be congratulated - this album has nothing approaching a jingle (and very little approaching a single), and its sexually baiting lyrics will stop the unadventurous indie-curious crowd in their tracks. Call it attractive career suicide - at the record store, anyway, since I don't see people boycotting the group's onstage extravaganzas any time soon. Past that, however, his successes are questionable. I commend Barnes for trying something truly adventurous in the wake of unexpected mainstream acceptance, as well as extending this sense of adventure to the album's packaging. But stripping all pretense away, I care about the music. In this case the music is frustrating, unnecessarily complex, occasionally rewarding and too scattered to achieve classic status. This album will be panned, triumphed and misunderstood, and it deserves all three reactions. My advice? Don't write it off, but don't make it something it's not. I think time will come to acknowledge the album as one of pop music's more curious and infuriating experiments. That's right - pop, not indie.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Escape from Amoeba: A day at Mystery Train, Amherst, MA (10/14)

On vacation, I really do enjoy hitting the local used record shops, even if they suck. Northampton, MA for instance: both Turn It Up! and Dynamite are just kind of lacking, for whatever reason, but I've visited them multiple times. What separates the good from the bad? Part of it is the music they play (there's nothing like overcompressed "emo" guitar that stunts my desire to browse), part of it is selection (indiscriminating buyers, plain old bad taste, etc), but I also suspect that it might be a case of "got it or don't got it." Which would prevent me from trying to set one up for the time being - you know, besides the fact that "nobody buys CDs anymore" and Amazon is allegedly killing small businesses one at a time.

Last time I came out to Massachusetts I visited both the aforementioned Northampton retailers and bought nothing. On my last day there, I was in an Amherst Ben & Jerry's across the street from a much more appealing hole-in-the-wall used record place, Mystery Train. Closed, naturally - fuck. I vowed on my next visit I would comb the place, as in my judging-a-book-from-its-cover glance, the location seemed more than promising.

This afternoon, it did not disappoint. Music? Check - they were playing Os Mutantes when I walked in, later switching to something sounding vaguely Middle Eastern. And the selection was there. A modest heap of used CDs are scattered throughout the store's corners, making it easy for me to go for a general look-see for anything appealing, rather than limiting a search to a few artists, as I tend to do at Amoeba. I came up with seven titles of interest, but due to my recent irresponsible spendthriftery (a post on a particularly lavish week will appear soon when I can come to terms with it), I swore to limit myself, and luckily a CD player where you could actually test out the goddam things (sadly, a rarity nowadays) was handy to help me in doing so. Hence, I decided against Too High to Die by the Meat Puppets (90s nostalgia isn't talking to me these days), Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (holding out for a vinyl copy even though I love the album), O'Rourke's Tamper (not sure if I love his ambient stuff and he's repeatedly stated dissatisfaction with that particular record) and Andrew W.K.'s The Wolf (I'm a seasonal record buyer. I just don't feel like kicking ass, puking and partying this time of year).

What's more, I was looking for a really good album I hadn't heard before, or at least something that would expand my horizons a little bit. It's hard to buy all five-star albums, or to constantly select something that's been woefully underrated for years or whatever, and it seems to get harder with the larger volume of albums you buy. Or perhaps I just haven't been giving my recent purchases the attention they deserve. Or perhaps I'm just entering "the middle" as Steve Albini so irritatingly put it in his well-written but typically kind of infuriating introduction to the wonderful new Tape Op book I got in the mail. Is nothing exciting anymore and I'm getting old? Maybe it's best to relax and just listen to some fuckin' jams, man...

Neil Young - Neil Young

When I took this one to the counter, the guy checking me out said, "Have you heard this one before? This is probably my favorite."

"Really?" I said, reassured of my purchase.

"Yeah, this or Trans {the Kraftwerk-aping 1983 flop that was one of the reasons Young got sued by his own record company - Ed.}." Oops.

I think that every one of these first self-titled solo albums follow a certain pattern. How many can I think of right now...Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine, Stephen Malkmus, this one...The stories are usually similar, too: most talented (and often most cantankerous) songwriter leaves group, makes tentative-sounding eponymous record, goes onto the rest of their career. Writing this, I wish there was a Roky Erickson that could have been cut in 1975, but until that time machine gets going, that will have to remain a wish. Instrumentation has to include one thing slightly envelope-pushing, but not too much. Tasteful, subdued drumming. Ensemble - preferably female - backup vocals, always. And songwriting that demonstrates both versatility and crossover appeal.

Even though Neil Young has all these things, it's still just kind of a weird record. Why include two instrumentals, one of which you didn't even write, on such an album? The album even starts with one of them, and elsewhere, vocals are a bit buried under a backing that's not quite psychedelic but also not quite the country-rocking hybrid Young would concoct just a year later that would more or less dominate the rest of his career. Really, Neil Young sounds of its time and not of its time, and like one of those "first solo albums" and not at the same time. Hell, it doesn't really sound like the Buffalo Springfield (aside from maybe "The Old Laughing Lady") but it also doesn't sound like NY & Crazy Horse. And thank God Almighty, it doesn't sound like CSNY, because I fucking hate them.

This is a tricky little record and in terms of a "seasonal buy," I really scored points with my fickle nervous system. Moody, double-tracked quavering vocals wander through some of the best lyrics Young would ever write in a mix that includes direct-injected distorted guitar lines, some kind of synthesizer (dunno which) and some pretty funky bass lines (which of course you wouldn't hear on later Young albums when handled by Billy "one-note" Talbot). Young would later decry this album as "more overdubbed than played," which, unbeknownst to him, was the future of music. But it's interesting to hear him thrust into such a scenario outside of what was to become his comfort zone, the late-night-jam-session record making method. He succeeds, however reluctantly. The results sound akin to proto-MBV at times, and I'm not just saying that because the band played "I've Been Waiting For You" over the PA before I saw them at the Santa Monica Civic this month. (SKULLFUCKINGLY LOUD)

Highlights include "Waiting for You," which I've heard covered by Dinosaur Jr, the Pixies (best one) and David Bowie. "I've Loved Her So Long" is probably the best-written song on the album, augmented by a surprisingly tasteful (read: not overdone) Jack Nietzche string arrangement that pushes the "blue-eyed soul" envelope effectively. Closer "Last Trip to Tulsa" provides a not-boring 9 minute acoustic run at Neil's own version of Bob D's "111th dream" (or whatever number it is, you know the song, and I think there was another one just like it on another Dylan album, too). And "The Loner" just sounds cool. Looking forward to more listens in the coming days. Now, I'm even considering giving Trans a try.

No Age: A Compilation of SST Instrumental Music

With A Compilation, formerly mediocre LA rock band No Age display more originality and vitality than could have been expected from a band with their amount of imagination and talent. Here, fronting as such fictional bands as "Black Flag," "Lee Renaldo," "Steve Fisk" and other, even zanier monikers like "Gone," "Frith & Kaiser" and "Elliot Sharp," the band defies critics who have labeled them "boring," "unoriginal," "careerist" and "like Husker Du stripped of anything exciting or entertaining" with riveting punk rock inspired instrumentals...

Forgive the Mark Prindle-ism. I'll admit this thing caught my eye because it shares a name with the current toast-of-the-town rockers who are the reason the same groups are at the Smell every week and just released a truly po-dunk record that bafflingly got great reviews everywhere. Then the subtitle grabbed me: "SST Instrumental Music?" I love SST just as much as the No Agers, who, in typical arrogance, claimed to be starting the same type of community for this generation at the increasingly unexciting Smell. But how much instrumental music had I really heard come out of the label? Uh, the instrumentals on Double Nickels on the Dime, maybe one or two that I could stand off Family Man, the handful of one-minute excursions on Meat Puppets II...you get the idea. I glanced at the back and saw a wide range of artists, including some pretty funny-sounding unknowns like "Blind Idiot God" and "Paper Bag." I rememered how, as a 6-year old music obsessive, instrumentals were often my favorites on any given album (e.g. Magical Mystery Tour's "Flying"). My inner Michael Harkin said "Go for it, B." It made the cut.

Some of the compilation is dominated by dated drum machines that have gated reverb and big-sounding toms, and other songs feature drumkits that might as well be those drum machines, but shit, we're talking about the mid-80s here - so we can forgive era-related gaffes in favor of good music. Surprisingly, Lawndale (never heard of them before) sound more Greg Ginn than the Greg Ginn bands on here. But both the Black Flag and Gone tracks are standouts, as well, mainly because Ginn was a hell of a guitar player, and a fucking weird one too. (He might still be, for all I know, but I don't even download the free stuff from current-day SST.) Great tracks include Lee Renaldo's all too short noise segue "Florida Power" and Beat Happening/Mudhoney producer Steve Fisk's room-sound experiment "Johnny Smoke 'Swamp Thing,'" probably notable for being the only two tracks on the record that don't use digital reverb. Lawndale's kind of disturbing "March of the Melted Army" also scored big, and the rest will require further listening - which an album of this scope really deserves. It's amazing to consider what a cross-section of truly talented people SST once had, and this bizarre gem is a testament to it, and a good find.

I don't know if No Age named themselves after this record and I don't give a shit.

Songs you should be listening to instead of that shit you're actually listening to:
"Never Gonna Leave You" - Retarded Muppit Farm
"No No No, I Won't Come (Go) Down No More," "Pool Hall Clickety Clack" - Michael Hurley
"Kangaroo," "Jesus Christ" - Big Star
"Toppin" - Sex-S
"The Rain" - Missy Elliott

Bonus Massachusetts Celebrity Sighting:
J MASCIS at a Thai restaurant in Northampton!!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Solo Albums Week (mainly ex-Big Starz)

I Am The Cosmos - Chris Bell

Nathaniel, Imaginary Reader of this Blog - Whaaat, he says Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert is better than this album! The fuck! Sherbert sounds like it was recorded in less time it take to listen to it, and Bell spent years perfecting Cosmos - he wasn't even done when he wrapped his car around a telephone poll...

Bartholomew, Imaginary Reader of this Blog - Have you ever heard the expression, "you can't polish a turd?"

Nathaniel - Excuse me? This was his life's work! Bell's last years were a tragedy - he poured everything he had into his music, only to find disappointment and failure at every turn. Those beautiful, magestic pop opuses are the only testament to what could have been after #1 Record.

Bartholomew - Well, not only is #1 Record my least favorite Big Star album, I find Bell's confessional songwriting maudlin at times and Beatles-aping at best. While I retract my "lipstick on a pig"-style insult, I maintain that this record simply isn't as good as Chilton's 1979 mess. It's not as fun. Chilton remains a man who follows his own star regardless of critical backlash, but he's happy and among the living. Bell is dead and made one critically acclaimed (still not commercially successful, just like Big Star, cheese!) album - released after he died. You tell me which one you'd rather.

Nate - If I wanted my favorite musical acts happy, I'd be spinning Weezer's Make Believe and Weezer (3rd edition) all fucking day.

I can't review this album, because I can't listen to it. Even after I listened to Pink Floyd for three years and even went so far as to attempt to like The Final Cut; even after Joy Division dominated my every waking breath for a year in high school; even after Forever Changes by Love became one of my top 10 of all time; even though I currently love driving around to Tonight's The Night; I know I can say this with full confidence:

It's too depressing.

Perhaps if I wasn't so into rock history, this wouldn't be the case, and this album would just seem like a maudlin mediocre Beatles-esque exercise in wrist-slashing. But because I know that Bell was a struggling young singer/songwriter who lived with his parents most of his life and never found any of the success he had so sought after, his songs are lent a deeper meaning that for me, a 20-something musician currently living with his parents, makes this album impossible to listen to. In case you don't know the story, his brother penned most of the saga, involving drug problems, a drain on family funds and various attempts at rehabilitation through recording in exotic European locales, just so you can get the whole picture.

But even at that, I mean, come on! The tempos are at a crawl, too many of the songs have that G-chord drone thing that Big Star always does ad nauseum, everything's compressed from here to Abbey Road and then I have to endure lyrics like "I know you're mine/He treats you nice/It's suicide/I know, I tried it twice" before Bell starts manically proselytizing. Where's the fucking gun, you know? First time I cut it off at that track - "Better Save Yourself," on which the music almost props up the clinical depression of the lyrics. Today I got to track 4, whatever it's called. Bell co-wrote some of my favorite Big Star songs - "O My Soul" and "Back of a Car" spring to mind (although, mysteriously he remains uncredited) - but as for this album, if there is a great song in there, it's buried under broken dreams. I definitely don't listen to "happy music" all the time, but I Am The Cosmos has got me saying "Choose life!"

Like Flies on Sherbert - Alex Chilton

All-Music gave this a rare one-star review. Wanna see?

"On the strength of his Big Star releases from the early 1970s and a host of live performances he gave during the latter half of the 1970s, Alex Chilton had rightly become a rock connoisseur's darling and an inspiration to independent-label bands throughout the United States. Despite all this favorable attention, he would not return to the studio until 1980. Sadly, this release is a dreadful disappointment. Production values are among the worst this reviewer has ever heard: sound quality is terrible, instrumental balances are careless and haphazard, and some selections even begin with recording start-up sound. Chilton's false-start vocal on "Boogie Shoes" is simply left in without correction. Many of the songs here stop dead or fall apart rather than ending properly. Instrumental playing is universally slipshod and boorish, and vocals are sloppy and lackluster. A cover of the Lonnie Mack hit "I've Had It" contains vocals that, without exaggeration, sound like a group of tavern inebriates trying to sing. An attempt to burlesque Elvis Presley's vocal excesses in "Girl After Girl" misfires badly. A few of Chilton's songs here, such as "My Rival" and "Hook or Crook," aren't bad in their own right and would have been listenable had they been performed and produced better. Regrettably, this album cannot be recommended under any circumstances."

Don't you love it when All-Music has a strong negative opinion on something? Sadly, it's often misplaced. Case in point: the original one-star rating they gave to Los Lobos' Colossal Head, which was actually one of the band's best and most inventive records, where they said that it was impossible to tell if the songs were any good - again, due to the production. Or their panning (two stars) of Beck's Midnite Vultures, claiming that everything after "Hollywood Freaks" sounded like a parody, because the aforementioned track sounded too much like a parody of gangsta rap. The question begs, why not just skip the fucking song and see how the rest of the album sounds without it? Both ratings have since been inflated to three stars. Yes, I do read All-Music that often.

Like Flies On Sherbert is indeed a mess, but it's a fun, drunken mess that suggests a white There's a Riot Goin' On vibe, and precludes the fun, drunken mess GBV would make ten years later (Before it seems like I made too grand a statement, I'm pretty sure this album is not as good as Riot.). A full spin from the cold perfectionism of Big Star's records, here, rhythm guitars are mixed too high, vocals are forgotten, abrasive or just plain weird and synthesizers inflict pain. Also, the drummer is fucking gone....Hey, and the songs are pretty great - check the psycho-killer stomp of "My Rival," the completely pedophile evil of "Hey! Little Child" or the Dixie-flavored Eno-imitation of "I've Had It." This album is sonically, musically and lyrically fucked - on purpose. The brazen "fuck you" that the record gives off is, I'm guessing, a big reason why it still sounds pretty fresh to these ears. Remember, Chilton did produce the Cramps. This sounds nothing like the Cramps, but rather an old dog doing new tricks. Much like Fleetwood Mac's best song ever, "The Ledge," I would guess this is Alex Chilton's interpretation of "new wave" or "punk." It still sounds like rootsy, rockabilly and New Orleans-influenced rock but with a more aggressive, abrasive edge that's fairly irresistible for someone like me. Highly recommended if you like records that surprise you.

Feudalist Tarts-No Sex - Alex Chilton

I like artists that do their own thing. Alex Chilton seems to do that. Critics have marred him for "wasting his talent," which basically means "Why didn't you keep making Big Star records, even after Big Star broke up?" Of course, once he reformed Big Star they got mixed reviews. The guy can write great songs, it's true. But does he always feel like it? No - I read an interview where he said he maybe had five new songs ready to record a week before he was to enter a studio to make his next album. In the same interview he professed to enjoy his life, and went about doing so by spending half a year making enough money to take the rest of the year off. This is not your burning-loins, innovative songwriter type. He is, in the words of Douglas Adams, "just this guy, you know?" Or as Chilton has put it, a "musical performer."

And Feudalist Tarts sounds like an album made by someone like that. By which I mean it's lazy, uninventive, and boring. Flaccid R & B tune follows limp excuse for boogie and so on. Opener "Tee Ne Nee Ni Noo" is playful and fun, most likely on the merits of being first on the album before the trick wears out - which, believe me, is pretty quick. AIDS-paranoia number "No Sex," in addition to being the most interesting title on the album's back cover, is the album's best tune, if for nothing else, the opportunity to hear Chilton spout, "Come on baby/Fuck me and die." The sound is monochromatic and free of things like dynamics or brilliance. Horns fart in and out - who gives a shit? Hell, I like R & B - good R & B, like the kind my friend Sam just made me a compilation from. The kind that has soul and effort going into it. This sounds like a quick grab at one of those European paychecks handed to the artist in recognition of past achievements. I played this one from start to finish at work and apologized to my co-worker afterwards. This is the one I wouldn't recommend unless you really don't have anything better to do. But you do.

Tom Verlaine - Tom Verlaine

I bought this album with much enthusiasm. I even bought it new, because Amoeba didn't have a used copy. As soon as I walked out the door, however, I realized, "Oh shit - I don't even like the second half of Adventure that much, what was I thinking?"

What I was thinking was that this album has the song "Kingdom Come." Heard it? You probably did, because Bowie did an amazing cover of it for Scary Monsters. Verlaine was supposed to be the lead guitar player on that record but - I believe, due to some personality conflict - this was not to be, and instead Robert Fripp came in and (once again) poured awesome over everything. One day I listened to that track four times in a row. "Why don't I have that first Tom Verlaine solo album?" I thought. "I love Television. And I fucking love this song."

Well, this might come as a big shock, but the album's not as good as anything Television did in the 70s. I would say ever, but I don't own 1992's Television and I fucking hated the one song I heard off of it, the Burroughs-invoking "Call Mr. Lee." But I still like Tom Verlaine. There's something comforting about it, and it goes down like applesauce. At the same time, there's also nothing too inventive, envelope-pushing, or urgent about the affair. But that's okay. It feels good to hear Verlaine's goat-bleating voice coming through as quirkily as ever over rock struts that recall Stax/Volt and the Velvet Underground at the same time. Yeah, just like Television, but what do you want? He wrote almost all the songs himself.

(Reminds me a bit of a story I heard about Stephen Malkmus' first solo album. He was trying to get it to "not sound like Pavement," using a complete different set of musicians, production and songwriting techniques, but realized this was impossible at the album's completion. No shit, man! If you write and sing all the songs and then play almost all the instruments yourself, it's going to be fairly impossible to make your solo album sound different from your "band"'s records. BTC reissue next month yeah!)

"Kingdom Come" is, obviously, a standout, but Veraline plays it far cooler than Bowie's operatic performance, for better or worse. "Yonki Time" is kind of incomprehensible but harmless fun. "Last Night" is gorgeous and "Breaking in My Heart" is plenty of fun to hear the interplay between Verlaine and guitarist Ricky Wilson (of the B-52s). Wish they could have made a whole album with Wilson as the guitar foil. The whole album has an especially autumnal aura, and I have a feeling this will be one I return to and discover more from the next time I'm ill in bed.

Naturally, this is only a dent in what I've actually purchased over the past month. In fact, I'm a bit ashamed at the volume of additions to my already impossible-to-move collection here, but when you give up cigarettes and coffee, you need to indulge your remaining addictions more thoroughly. It's science. More later.

I listen to these songs a lot lately:
"Roll Another Number," "Albuquerque" - Neil Young & Crazy Horse
"100,000 Fireflies," "Desert Island" - the Magnetic Fields
"Looking for Love (in the Hall of Mirrors)" - the 6ths
"Nagasaki" - Django Reinhardt
"Brainstorm" - Hawkwind
"Hold On To the Rail" - the Great Unwashed

and they'll fuck you up

Monday, September 15, 2008


Holy misanthrope!

Jim O'Rourke moved to JAPAN! Here's the first interview with him I've seen in forever.

P.S.: I recently bought about $75 worth of CDs so reviews will be up when I can fully evaluate them.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Roll it. Roll the list

Live - Big Star

On record, Big Star sounds superhuman. By that I don't mean that their albums are godlike, beyond reproach or the best I've ever heard. As a matter of fact, all three of those studio albums, #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers remain difficult nuts to crack for me on a musical and intellectual level, by merit of the fact that the songwriting is so chunky, the sound so super-compressed - like a cartoonish magnification of the aural aesthetic of the band's heroes, the Beatles and the Byrds - and the lyrics so hyper-self-aware (we can say meta-something here) of their pop mission (meta-pop). And then there's the name of the band and their first two albums: did they think that by putting the idea in the public's head that they were superstars selling millions of records (which was, in fact, their true aspiration) they could make it real? This technique of manipulative projection is, of course, more often used (and more successful) in fascism, but what is pop if not fascist in the first place?

Big Star flopped. Were they simply not meant to be the ubermensch?

Big Star failed because they wanted it too bad. Every move they made was the recorded equivalent of the high school scholar who dresses overtly sharp in a manner that recalls the last decade but won't be popular again for another 5 years, says all the right things in the most affected manner, and devotes his life to an act to win over the prom queen - who he's calling a couple times a day. Good looking and intelligent, yes, but also very creepy and awkward.

Ah, but this is all conjecture, bullshit and clunky metaphor. My point is that Big Star were the perfect pop band who were too perfect. And I really like their records - but something has always made me keep my distance from them, be it the questionable emotionalism, the heart-on-the-sleeve thirst for success, or the almost alien sound all three of the albums generate.

But Live is the first album from this band I feel like I can actually love. For the injection of what Zappa would have called the "human element." The band, removed from the cozy surroundings of Ardent Studios (where they recorded all their albums - even the reunion record In Space) and thrust into an OK-sounding radio studio on Long Island, have to sell their music with actual charisma and passion, rather than perfectly crafted studio performances. Hence, I was won over within the first 30 seconds of track 1, "September Gurls," a performance in which guitarist Alex Chilton sounds close to some kind of breaking point, his voice often straddling the line between belting and screaming the song's ultra-poignant, yet intentionally enigmatic, lyrics. But the two to the one-two punch of the set is drummer Jody Stephens' vocals on Andy Hummel's "Way Out West," taking the song's elegant baroque pop to a new level of emotional depth with the naivete of his delivery from behind the kit.

OK, but did I like this album because Chilton and Stephens don't sing as well as they do in the studio? Don't be silly. The band's performances throughout are absolutely stellar - it makes you wish there were more albums like this floating around. Stephens shows himself to be one of the best drummers of his day, a cross between the Detroit snap of Scott Asheton and the caveman funk of John Bonham. And Chilton's bizarre is-it-rhythm-is-it-lead guitar work is more properly recognized when not covered in layers of studio glaze. Here, Big Star sounds more like a precursor to the multi-faceted guitar rock of Dinosaur Jr and Richard Hell (who listed this album in his top-10 on Perfect Sound Forever (which is why I bought this album)) than to the META-POP of the Posies or Teenage Fanclub. Put into this context, I found myself finally understanding why people (the critics/other bands) love "Mod Lang," "Back of a Car" or especially, "O My Soul," which receives an absolutely manic reading here. Furthermore, the "acoustic set" that divides the full-band sets in two is shockingly enjoyable - a rarity, at least for me.

Is it that I like to hear vulnerability in performers? Perhaps. I do love lo-fi, which is essentially about the vulnerability of the medium and the potential destruction of the art behind it. But it's a different story here: a band that has always relied on the studio to carry them through, just like their 60s Anglopop heroes, suddenly forced at gunpoint to play like a motherfucking band, and they sound great, but they also sound scared and adrenaline-fueled and vulnerable. Thus, perfect pop meets humanity and a great record is born. Or whatever.

In short, I would recommend this album to anyone on the fence about Big Star. Rather than the album being a supplement to the supposedly greater studio albums (like it says in the condescending liner notes), I think this would be a great introduction to the band before getting into the more intimidating - to say the least - polished work from this frustrating band.

And if you want to feel more frustrated about Big Star and you already know the scoop, check out this overwhelmingly indifferent interview with Alex Chilton, the band's primary singer/songwriter.

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass - Yo La Tengo

Another critic's band. Literally. Ira Kaplan was a rock critic. But couldn't you tell? Were the encyclopedic WFMU cover shows not a big enough indicator?

I think this album's OK. I could live in the hooks of "Beanbag Chair," a song so good it puts a plus at the end of the B grade the record more or less deserves. Friends I know that went to the Fillmore shows the band put on around the time of the release of this album generally gave it the thumbs-down, by merit of the fact they basically just played this album.

OK, I literally slept on this review. I don't feel I can accurately judge this album yet. I gave it one full listen at work and I thought that some of it was really good, but the two songs that have grabbed me so far, the aforementioned "Beanbag Chair" and another Ira-sung piano number, "Mr. Tough," only did so after a second, more attentive listen. If you know Yo La Tengo, you know they can straddle all these genres and Ira plays crazy guitar and they're all talented songwriters and blah blah blah. It's not worth restating, so I'll come back to this album when I feel I have a strong opinion about it. Whenever that is.

Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes - The Music Tapes

The Music Tapes are the one Elephant 6 band you've probably never heard of, despite the fact that every member of Neutral Milk Hotel appears on their debut album and they are lead by onesuch Milker, space-cadet multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster. Koster used to lead Chocolate USA, an early 90s Bar/None band that I've never heard but supposedly were quite good, before becoming the go-to guy for freaky noises in Elephant 6; his specialty is the singing saw. He's the guy in all those fuzzy videos of Bottom of the Hill footage playing keyboards with his nose or bowing, plucking or strumming some archaic stringed instrument.

As far as I can tell, the Tapes' first album, 1999's 1st Symphony for Nomad was a total flop, not that anyone around the project could have expected it to be a smashing success. That album was ridiculously overblown stitched together lo-fi noise that sounded like it had been dubbed BACK onto a Fostex 4-track after the mastering was done....which is not to say Koster didn't have some great songs anyway - notably the horn-laced indie-funk groove "What The Single Made The Needle Sing...,"the nauseous, looping suite "Song for the Death of Parents," and the They Might Be Giants-like "An Orchestration's Overture." But the album is so impossible to take on in one serving, with the overwhelming murk of competing sound effects, samples, bizarre narration...it sounds like an acid trip where the world becomes tinted gray.

But I'm not sure songs are the point in the Music Tapes. In the case of Koster's work with the group, the focus IS the media, the fact that he records on wire recorders, record lathes, broken down reel-to-reels and hand-held cassette recorders, and the fact that he owns a 7-foot metronome (which appears on the new record, but don't ask me where).

Even at that, I feel like I'm missing the point. The songs on Clouds and Tornadoes range from pretty good to slightly monotonous or just kind of uninventive, but Koster always seems to be ranting on about some childlike theme that I'm simply not attuned to. Why does this guy care so much? It really sounds like he cares about something I can't tap into and I'm constantly missing his message. You can't blame me for that half the time, the intentionally primitive nature of the recording often obscuring important pre-reqs for understanding lyrics like intelligibility, sibilance, etc.

I think the problem is that Music Tapes albums (all two of them, although I do own a bootleg copy of the unreleased middle album, an hour-long narrated suite) are trying to accomplish that I either I can't understand because I'm not on Koster's wavelength, or I don't care about because I don't feel like delving further. I think that this new album IS good, even though I think I prefer (!) Nomad for its overblown scope and hookier songwriting. Clouds can be commended for a wonderful, warm feel that envelops the song fragments and lends cohesiveness to the project, but it's still not quite the greatness that I sense Koster is truly capable of. I'll keep watching him anyway. Maybe in the next ten years...

Live at Max's Kansas City - the Velvet Underground

Do I listen to any non-critically acclaimed-lo-fi-diamond-in-the-rough music?

I don't really want to review this that much, especially since I said a lot of things about Lou Reed a month ago that I felt covered those bases pretty well. I listen to a lot of Lou and share special bonds with people over talking about him. And he is definitely the star of the show on this album, being really cute with the audience, giving vocal performances that blow the "he can't sing" argument out the window (barring him talking the last three verses of "Pale Blue Eyes"... oh well) and the he quits the band after the CD ends. Fin - until 1993, but that's another story...

Billy Yule was on OK drummer but he was 17 years old and he drums like it.

I listen to these songs a lot lately:
"Meanwhile Rick James..." - Cake
"Slug Song" - the Clean
"She's My Girl" - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffitti
"California Gold," "Sweet Baby" - Retarded Muppit Farm
"Animals" - Gangi

and they're all great.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Lexicon Revisited

In about 2002, a book called Lexicon Devil came out about the Germs. You should buy it, it rocks. I've read it about three times. Forgoing the usual one-sidedness that a straight portrayal would have risked, the book is simply a compilation of various interview strands from the band and almost everyone around them - a mosaic folktale.

In 2006, a movie called What We Do Is Secret was finished. I saw it last night. I'll sum it up for you:

"Hi Darby, I'm Claude Bessy. I'm funny if you saw the real me in Decline of Western Civilization. I'll serve as the quirky, French-accented comic relief in this movie."
"Hi Darby, I'm Pat Smear. I'll do anything you say and I think you're a genius, even if it makes me sad when you abuse hard drugs."
"Hi Darby, I'm Lorna Doom. Even though you're gay, I'm secretly in love with you, because I'm played by Bijou Phillips."
"Hi Darby, I'm Don Bolles. I drove all the way from Arizona to join your band a year earlier than I actually joined the band. I'm the band spaz."
"Hi Darby, I'm Chris Ashford and I'm going to manage your band. I'm also your other manager Nicole Panter, since apparently she didn't agree to be portrayed in this movie, or no one wanted her in it."
"Hi Darby, I'm Rob Henley. I'm a composite of all your male lovers/love interests with a Yoko Ono edge: I ruin your band, because apparently you wouldn't dare do that by yourself (even though you did)."
"Hi Darby, I'm Rodney Bingenheimer of Rodney on the ROQ fame. I'm only funny if you've ever heard my show."
"Hi Darby, I'm Bob Biggs. I don't initially want to put out your album, but after I do, I'll say it's the best thing I've ever done."
"Hi Darby, I'm the mysterious mohawked woman that shoots you up for the first time."
"Hi Darby, I'm Amber, an overweight Jewish sugar-mama. I'll buy all the drugs and food you want and later, I'll be the evil, 'more professional' manager every band movie needs."
"Hi Darby, I'm Penelope Spheeris. I want to make a movie with your band in it."
"Hi Darby, I'm Casey Cola. I share your apparently spontaneous desire to commit suicide, too. Let's do it!"

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Follow up to Aug 5 post

As promised, here is a download of a choice cut from last Monday's blistering Amazements show, "In the Time of Shakespeare." Enjoy, it's a great new track. (Thank you Liam for giving us permission)

R. Stevie Moore: the music of loneliness

Have the house "all to myself" this week, so I'm spending it with this guy:

The sound of his music meshed perfectly with the sound of the three chorizo that constituted my dinner pan-frying in the background. And no, I didn't embellish that story.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Update at Work

The Amazements' Show at Pehrspace last night was almost certainly the most violent show I've ever witnessed from them, moreso than the Spaceland show where Elon ripped out his (tuned) bass strings with his bare hands, moreso than the last Perhspace show where Liam and Elon destroyed the drumkit, thus knocking the band's 40 onto an outlet, and electrocuting Brendan, moreso than the one at that place in the valley where me and some of the fan klub had a vicious pillow fight while the band played on.

Rather, last night the band was on the point of musical frenzy. Faced with a 10-minute time limit and a midnight slot right before local celebrities HEALTH and initially fighting the low body-count within the venue (this was probably the highest attendance rate I've seen at Pehr ever, but it keeps ballooning there week after week regardless), the band played as if they were in a fucking war zone. Starting off with an initially unintelligible (in a good way), very noisy version of new song "In the Time of Shakespeare" it was obvious that there was a great deal of pent-up energy that the group hadn't released earlier in the day on their (quite good, but restrained) reverby KXLU session. During recent regular Isley Brothers cover "Testify" neither the moshers (real moshers this time) nor guitarist Brendan could restrain themselves, resulting in the collision of his pink Fender Stratocaster with a few concertgoers' torsos, not to mention this reporter being knocked about as I tried to tape the band on my MiniDisc recorder. Ending with an appropriately desperate "Head on A Stick" (what else?) this set would count among the band's best. If I get the go-ahead, I will put up mp3s from the set which sound not unlike side 2 of White Light/White Heat.

In other news, apparently Olivia Tremor Control didn't break up.

More on new music I've acquired/bought/thought about later.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Reminder: Trapezing Artifacts or Polymorphous Hypocritical Empire of Lust

I was driving to work and slipped Crying Your Knife Away, a GBV bootleg dating from around 1994 (read: between Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes) on the old iPod - was surprised I still had the files on something. What a pick-me-up that thing is. Drunken middle-aged men at their best, featuring choice line such as

"(in an affected British accent) I can't find me setlist"
"I'm fucked up, so if I fuck this up, fuck it."
"(to someone offstage) Hey Bela, man, I saw you get kicked out of the Newport the other day. That SUCKED. That was BULLSHIT."
Plus the album is named after a missung line in "If We Wait" - "Oh, now I've bored you, crying my life away"

The good vibes given off by Pollard & co - who at the time were on top of the (indie) world and just starting to play out more as a powerful, alcohol-fueled five piece rock juggernaut - are infectious, even fourteen years and several beers removed from the original. Pollard's voice gives out well before the encore but it's definitely the strongest live GBV I've heard on record. (Well worth checking out is the reverb-drenched radio set they did with Girls Against Boys) If you like GBV, this set will be talking your language.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Some things never change

I went to see Lou Reed (and Julian Schnabel's) Berlin last Tuesday. It gets a thumbs-up from me. But not for the shitty "in-the-moment" hand-held camerawork. Not for the moody lighting of the stage Reed & co. played on. Not for the inane films of the "Caroline" character interspersed between the songs, half of which didn't even correspond to the music behind them. Not for the 60(,000) musicians and underage choral singers backing up Lou onstage. Not even for Reed's core band, who were quite good (including Fernando Saunders on bass and Steve Hunter on guitar).

No, as usual, despite the massive pretensions that frequently surround Reed and his work, his own performance and songwriting shined through, and carried Berlin far away from being a nostalgia-trip, an exercise in futility, an overblown maudlin nightmare media-extravaganza, etc. and into an emotionally resonant and entertaining film worth watching. Most of the success or failure of a Lou Reed project depends on whether he's bringing his A-game to the table or not. Berlin is one of those where Lou gives 110% . I felt moved, amused, exhilarated, etc, and this is mainly from watching close-ups of him singing. Real tears are in his eyes during "Caroline Says II" and "The Bed." His guitar-faces are inimitable. His joy at performing is unmistakable. Indeed, it's Lou's passion that carries Berlin - which in the first place is a bit of a frustrating mongrel document: "Sad Song" and "Men of Good Fortune" were both VU songs, "Berlin" appeared on Lou Reed, "Caroline Says I" repeats the melody and rhythm of Transformer's "Make Up," and "Caroline Says II" is the VU's "Stephanie Says" with new lyrics. But somehow, with a little love, with unmistakable passion (which is admittedly rare for this artist, who prefers to shield himself in time-hardened cynicism) and with a believable and intelligible enough story line, this is translated into a conceptually cohesive work - a moving one, even. (This is true for the 1973 album, as well, which is also fantastic).

As a side note, I think it might be best if people tried to see the sense of humor in Lou Reed songs sometimes - for instance, I found myself one of the two people in the theater laughing at encore number "Rock Minuet"'s line "The two whores sucked his nipples, then he came on their feet" - sung, typically, in his trademark east coast drawl. Christ, even stoney-faced Lou must have had a little chuckle coming up with that one!

But so it goes - Lou Reed remains the most misinterpreted, misunderstood, internationally-recognized genius songwriter on earth. (Often he is the biggest culprit in this enterprise.) Some things never change.

Indeed, some things never change....