Saturday, December 26, 2009

Favorite Songs of 2009

Last year I trouble putting together a year-end top 10 favorite songs list, although much of that difficulty was the fault of my own ignorance. Nonetheless, 2009 was a dynamite year for singles, and I had to cut a lot to pare my list down to 25 picks. Sadly, hip-hop has another bad year, although I haven’t spent much time with the Pitchfork championed ‘Shineblockas’ yet. Enough rambling though, here’s my list, my favorite 25 songs of 2009:


  1. ‘Young Hearts Spark Fire’ – Japandroids from Post-Nothing

Japandroids have crafted their musical masterpiece out of the barest rock elements imaginable: one ridiculously fuzzed out electric guitar, one drum part alternating between tribal pounding and cymbal crashes, two dudes who can’t sing, and about 4 bars worth of lyrics. Now even the punks should be jealous of that accomplishment.

  1. ‘Wind Phoenix (Proper Name)’ – Cymbals Eat Guitars from Why There Are Mountains

In an album defined by massively ambitious sprawl, Cymbals Eat Guitars were able to pull it all together for one shining moment of warped song structure, obtuse lyrical imagery, trumpet accompaniment, larynx-shredding screams, and glorious, glorious hooks.

  1. ‘My Girls’ – Animal Collective from Merriweather Post Pavilion

So obviously brilliant, I can’t even give Pitchfork props for finally getting it right and putting a truly deserving song at the top of their list.

  1. ‘People Got A Lotta Nerve’ – Neko Case from ‘Sound Opinions’ session

Am I the only one who thinks elephants are inherently depressing? I mean, even if the famine and drought of their decaying ecosystems doesn’t get them, the poachers surely will. The essential melancholy of this song is highlighted in this stripped-down version. Please download it from immediately.

  1. ‘Lisztomania’ – Phoenix from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

This song earns number 4 on my list by virtue of its first 25 seconds alone. The next three and a half minutes aren’t too bad either.

  1. ‘House of Flying Daggers’ – Raekwon from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II

Second best line: “Rae’s job is to make sure the coke is fluffy, while I politic his birthday bash with Puffy” - Ghostface

Best line: “Bury me in Africa with whips and spears and rough diamonds out of Syria” – Raekwon

  1. ‘I’m Confused’ – Handsome Furs from Face Control

God made Dan Boeckner to bring us ferocious power chords and to sing every proletarian lyric like a guy with a knife in his chest.

  1. ‘Deadbeat Summer’ – Neon Indian from Neon Indian

Amazing, this song is just as good on December 26 as it was when I listened to it in             early August.

  1. ‘No Hope Kids’ – Wavves from Wavvves

Best punk song of the year.

  1. ‘I Hate My Job’ – Cam’ron from Crime Pays

Out of the blue, Cam’ron decides to switch from professional asshole to working-class hero, and sets his transformation to one of the best beats he’s ever rapped over.

  1. ‘When I’m Gone’ – Vivian Girls from Everything Goes Wrong

The chorus of this song crystallizes pretty much everything the Vivian Girls do well.

  1. ‘That’s That’ – DOOM from Born Like This

Hearing DOOM sing the refrain of “I Wanna Be Where You Are” at the end of this track was a far more emotional moment for me than when I first learned about Michael Jackson’s death.

  1. Knotty Pine’ – Dirty Projectors from Dark Was the Night

Something tells me that David Byrne’s vocals are the glue that holds this whole song together.

  1. ‘Sovereignty’ – Japandroids from Post-Nothing

The boys take a break from whining about their girl problems to give us a genuine love song.

  1. ‘Suffering Season’ – Woods from ‘Daytrotter’ session

This song is so achingly beautiful. Not what I expect from spooky, atmospheric folk rockers. Please check it out at 

  1. ‘Too Sick to Pray’ – Phosphorescent from To Willie

90% of the credit goes to Willie for writing such an incredible lyrical gem, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else nailing it as well as Matt Houck does here.

  1. ‘Call and Response’ – Time New Viking from Stay Awake EP

I have a very soft spot for cheesy keyboards in garage rock, which is probably why Beth Murphy consistently makes me swoon.

  1. ‘When We Were Alive’ – The Thermals from Now We Can See

Second best punk song of the year. Musical eco-terrorism.

  1. ‘Wasted’ – Gucci Mane from The State Vs. Radric Davis

The best mainstream rap hit of the year is actually about racial unification under the banner of partying.

  1. ‘Walkabout’ – Atlas Sound from Atlas Sound

Noah Lennox strikes again. I’ll admit that I haven’t been the biggest fan of Bradford or Noah’s past work, so I consider the depth of my love for this song to be vindication of it greatness.

  1. ‘The Reeling’ – Passion Pit from Manners 

I can’t believe I actually like a pop song that uses a children’s choir.

  1. ‘Dominos’ – Big Pink from A Brief History of Love

This song is fun to sing-along to, not that I can identify with anything that these guys are talking about.

  1. ‘Raindrops’ – Basement Jaxx from Scars

I’ve only listened to this song a few times, but something tells me that a few more plays could propel it to the number one spot. 

  1. ‘The Pharoahs’ – Neko Case from Middle Cyclone 

Hard to choose Neko’s best ballad from 2009, but I’ll go with the one that brought me to the verge of tears during her performance at the State Theater in Ithaca.

  1. ‘Hold the Line’ – Major Lazer from Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Kill People

Since I didn’t start listening to Santigold until this year, I’m going to give this Diplo and Switch collaboration a nod on my 2009 list.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Why I worship Ted Leo: reason #23

This guy writes songs about stuff that other punks wouldn't touch with a 10 foot stick. Item A is the glorious 'Me and Mia', a fiercly infectious slice of power pop that sounds ready for the whole family to enjoy. Except that it's about Ted's compassion for victims of eating disorders. Yet he brings the same utterly sincere fervor to his performance as he does in his angriest agitprop rants. Or how about 'Hearts of Oak', about how difficult it is for women to break through in the rock music scene? 'St. John the Divine', about the pitfalls of anti-depression medication? Ted Leo's lyrics are fearlessly emotional. He's never been afraid of sacrificing punk credibility to show a more sensitive side, which paradoxically endows his more political pieces with even greater power. Perhaps my favorite 'emo' Ted Leo moment is 'Sons of Cain', the first song on his last album, Living With The Living. I got so swept up in the roaring guitars, ferocious vocals, and break-neck rhythm of the song that it wasn't until months after first hearing the song that I realized it's about Ted mourning the loss of a partner, with the most tenderly melancholy lyrics imaginable. Yet the performance remains punk to the core, no power ballads for Leo. And the result is incredibly moving.

And I know I'm not to sing of fights I've missed
But alone I've got to sing just to exist!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

How the world began

I don't think I've devoted enough blog-space to Modest Mouse, easily one of my favorite bands of all time. Maybe it's because they haven't done anything since 'Float On' that's been really worth talking about. That aside, going into their back catalogue is infinitely rewarding: their early material is so rich with emotions and ideas, and their sound is so original and distinctive. My most recent fix has been the opening track off The Moon and Antarctica, entitled '3rd Planet.' Isaac Brock is one of pop music great song writers, but he outdoes himself here by shunning his traditionally graphic philosophical musings for something, dare I say, poetic? My favorite lyric in the song (and possibly my favorite Brock lyric of all time, which is saying a hell of a lot) occurs in the first verse, and goes as follows:

The third planet is certain they're being watched
By an eye in the sky that can't be stopped
When you get to the promised land
You're gonna shake that eyes hand

Your heart felt good
It was dripping pitch and made of wood
And your hands, and knees
Felt cold and wet on the grass to me
While outside naked, shivering looking blue
From the cold sunlight that's reflected off the moon
And baby cum angels fly around you
Reminding me we used to be three and not just two
And that's how the world began
And that's how the world will end

In between the fourth and fifth lines above a lazy acoustic strum is interrupted by a cymbal crash and five successive beats led by ringing electric guitar notes that repeat, then change chord. It's a remarkable moment, and Brock's accompanying lyrics are beautifully evocative of something: a naked couple lying on the ground outside on a cold night staring at the moon? Contemplating love, sex, creation, and existence perhaps? It's grand, but Brock is always swinging for the fences when it comes to making sense of the ball of confusion that is earth, or even more grandly, the universe. Enormous and minute problems are all of equal magnitude to Brock, which might be why is able to imbue simple expression with intense emotional weight. Take the track 'Broke', another of my recent kicks off of the fantastic Building Nothing Out of Something compilation, in which Brock plays with the titular word to find deeper meanings in everyday events:

Broken glasses but it broke the ice
You said that I was an asshole and I'd pay the price

Broken hearts want broken necks
I've done some things that I sort of regret but I can't

Backed by the trailer trash emo sound of early Mouse, and sung in Brock's cracked lisp, these words take on a compelling resonance. They're the sort of simple but endlessly sad and profound ideas one might expect from a white trash high school dropout. That Brock does so in such an authentic, unconcious matter adds a lot; Modest Mouse songs work because the guys in the band are genuine fuck-ups. If they weren't, there's know way there music would sound so real. I'll close this fawning post with some more of my favorite Brock lyrics, from another Building Nothing cut, this one entitled 'Medication'. As you read these lyrics, imagine a glorious Hammond B3 organ accompaniment, and Brock's lonely caterwaul:

And I don't know
Well I could go away and you could wish that I had stayed
Or just stayed gone
And I don't know, at all
So out of the context
Then into what you meant
You don't know your reason
You don't know who you are, but you know who you want to be

Friday, November 20, 2009

The song that's shaking me

Can I take a minute to talk about 'Letter From An Occupant' by the New Pornographers, and how it's one of the best pop songs ever made? The loud crunching guitar lines and hammering drums that open the song in rapid fire, then cut back when Neko Case's godly voice enters? The British Invasion riffs that drive the song forward? The nonsensical yet relentlessly invigorating lyrics ("I cried 5 rivers on the way here/ Which one will skate away on?")? The divine chorus with Neko's stunning lead vocal, followed by wordless vocals and the thundering question "Where have all sensations gone!?" Who is the star of the show? Neko's singing? A. C. Newman's remarkable song craft? The way the whole band pulls together to turn simple power pop into an bull-dozing, exhausting, and ultimately uplifting anthem with seemingly every bell and whistle in the book? The answer: every individual piece of this song, from start to finish, is perfection. It could not have been pulled off any better. Kudos.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bound by these choices

Listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for the first time in a very long time today, and while every song on the album is good (literally), my surprise favorite is probably the last track, 'Reservations.' Many of Jeff Tweedy's songs give off an air cocky self-assurance that gets under my skin sometimes, but when he deigns to show us his vulnerabilities, it can be pretty disarming. Now, I'm not one for rock ballads, in fact I dislike almost all of them, but when I hear a good one, I fall for it hard. And 'Reservations' is very good. "How can I convince you that it's me I don't like?" is the opening line, and somehow Tweedy spends the rest of the song selling us a bunch of uber-emo lyrics without making us cringe. My favorite line is the chorus: "Oh I've got reservations/ About so many things/ But not about you." Airing personal insecurities can be a songwriter's deathtrap, but when it's pulled off right, it can earn a quick route to the listener's heart. Capping off such an ambitious album with a moment of real sincerity certainly does it for me.

Speaking of great rock ballads, my song of the week is 'Lord I'm Discouraged' by the Hold Steady. Probably my favorite Hold Steady song, in spite of the Manfred Mann-esque guitar theatrics midway through. I go back and forth on Craig Finn's lyrics, but this song is certainly his finest moment as a song-writer, at least of what I've heard. It would be a waste of time for me to attempt to do them justice by discussing them here, so just go out and listen to the song. I will say, however, that the closing line always gives me chills, so I've got to quote it here, just for good measure: "I know it's unlikely she'll ever be mine/ So mostly I just pray she don't die."

Monday, October 12, 2009

He drops his new shit/ It sounds like the best of

I've been going through the Pitchfork top 200 albums of the decade list recently, trying to listen to all of the albums that I own and are uploaded to my library. Just got done with #18, Kanye's Late Registration, which I hadn't listened to in eons. Dammm, so good, it totally vindicated it's status as Nick Holowka's favorite Kanye West album. No question it's choppy: starts well with all of the radio crossover stuff, Touch the Sky, Gold Digger, Drive Slow, etc., hits a really bad middle stretch with Roses and Bring Me Down, then closes immaculately. In particular, I'm talking about 'We Major' and 'Gone', the two best songs in Kanye's catalogue. Both are long and ridiculously over produced, and both feature show stopping guest spots, Nas on the former ("I heard the beat and I ain't know what to write/ First line, should it be about the hos or the ice?/Fo-fo's or black christ, both flows would be nice"), and Killa Cam on the latter ("You ever dealt with a dealer?/ Well here's the deal ma, we goin' to the dealer"). They also both boast fantastically triumphant vocal outros by Kanye that ride over ever-changing beats that make up very unconventionally structured rap songs. This sense of pop-ready adventure hasn't been touched since in rap music, which is what makes Late Registration a masterpiece in spite of all its flaws. As my brother has frequently pointed out, the album contains some of Kanye's worst verses, but I could just as easily argue it contains many of his best (see Gold Digger, Drive Slow, both versions of Diamonds). Plus, when you have as many good guest appearances as this album, the point becomes somewhat moot. But its the sense of studio experimentation which really separates this album from the pack. Nothing in pop music before or since sounds like it, and nothing in mainstream rap apart from the Outkast camp has ever been as adventurous. Being a pessimist when it comes to hip-hop, I'm inclined to think that it's going to stay that way.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

mothafuckin' old school video of the day

Tonight's Da Night by Redman (c.1993)

Years ago I saw one of those BET Top 25 video countdowns being hosted by Redman and Method Man. Slotted in at #10 was the video for 'King of Rock' by Run-DMC, for which Redman made the ludacris comment, "This is actually my favorite video of all time. Black and white film, leather jackets, it don't get no more gully than that!" Later, when 'Throw Ya Gunz' by Onyx was declared #1, Method Man prefaced the selection by fondly reminiscing, "This came out back in the day when you could walk into da club in a hoodie and your big, dirty-ass boots on and not get shit." 

The comments, while providing a good laugh at the time, were actually quite insightful into the duo's overall creative process, in particular Redman's. In the video to 'Tonight's Da Night,' perhaps the quintessential Redman track, the aforementioned aesthetics dominate: filmed in black and white, the video pretty much consists of Red rolling around the Trenton, NJ hood in the dead of winter, and chilling on the project steps with his crew. Almost a proto-version of 'Ha,' before that particular genre of hip-hop music video rose to prominence. Nothing really happens in the video, but it's still enthralling, mainly because it lends legitimacy to Redman's ethos of keeping it real as summarized in the line "I never claim to be a big rap star because no matter who you are, you still catch a bullet scar." This mission statement was later confirmed in the classic Redman 'Cribs' episode in which he showed off his very real 2 story woodframe. The highlight of the video has to be when Red says the line "I'm not an addict, more like puff the magic/ Then pass it when I'm through cuz my crew gots to have it!" at which point there's a cut to a shot of red's whole crew standing out on the porch in full winter coats shouting the last 4 words of the line. The last verse, in which Red is inexplicably rapping with a wad of tissue stuck up one of his nostrels, is also classic. 

The truest lyrics in the whole song have to be the final lines of the last full verse, in which Redman declares "Niggas fucked up by letting me make an album/ (how come rudeboy?) To get on the mic and let my fuckin' style run!"

Friday, September 4, 2009

Life's Too Good?

Hmmm, this post almost feels like an excuse to put up the above picture, undoubtably one of my favorite album covers of all time. Because, really there isn't much substance to what I have to say today. I just happened to listen to Debut for the first time, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Historically, my appreciation for Bjork has had less to do with how much I enjoy listening to her music and more about her alluring otherworldly qualities.

My brother and I have debated the relative merit of Post vs Homogenic in the past, with me taking the side of the former. They are tremendously difficult to compare, and I may have to cede the argument to Tom because the first 6 songs on Homogenic are nearly perfect. One of those songs, '5 Years' is not only my favorite Bjork song, but one of my favorite songs of all time. But I have trouble relating to Homogenic, because the depth of emotional pain that it explores is beyond my current comprehension. In other words, I can't fully relate to the album, and I think I'll have to wait until the day my heart gets ground to a bloody pulp before I'll feel its full effect. Post is much more accessible in that regard, and its creative dance tracks ('Enjoy', 'I Miss You') along with the smattering of emotionally resonant ones ('Hyperballad,' 'Headphones') goes down more easily for me.

Although Debut is as different from these two albums as the are from one another, it makes sense in the context of their respective moods. The overall vibe of the songs is very positive and exciting. A young fresh-faced Bjork sounds like she's ready to explore the world and all of the adventures it has to offer (kind of ironic, considering she had been a mother for several years by the time this album came out). So many tracks jumped out at me, in particular 'Human Behavior,' 'Venus As A Boy,' 'There's More To Life Than This,' 'Big Time Sensuality,' 'Aeroplane,' and 'The Anchor Song.' I also like 'Violently Happy' for the counterbalance it provides. Only one listen, but I feel like I may have a new favorite Bjork album to argue about with my brother.

Favorite Judge: Mathis

Song of the Week: 'Dennehy' by Serengeti

I know I'm at least 3 years behind on this one, but damn, I can't stop listening. A friend played me this song about a week ago, and at first I thought it was a dumb novelty with a really good beat. Repeated listens have been incredibly rewarding, while the song has lost none of its hilarity. Having spent a little time in the Chi myself, and having of course seen the Bill Swersky's superfans SNL sketches a million times, I love this portrait of a Blue Collar Chicagoan. So many great lines, I can't even begin to do the song justice. And the production is killer. An all around fantastic song that should not be underestimated.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The band is called ...

Excited to see Cymbals Eat Guitars show at Brooklyn Bowl tonight. Cymbals Eat Guitars ... what a great band name. Not only does it basically describe their cacophonous sound, but its also evocative of tripping on drugs (not surprising considering their lyrics). It's also totally unique, and doesn't sound too awkward rolling off the tongue. One of my favorite band names of all time belongs to the Cymbals' musical forebears, Modest Mouse. Alliterative and self-deprecating, and paradoxically seems simultaneously totally unsuitable and absolutely perfect for the band. Coming up with a good band name is an art. I could go on at length on this topic, but in the interest of not wasting time, I'll cut right to the chase and get to the point of this post: ideas for band names. If I were to form a band, what would I call it. Hear are a few ideas I've been kicking around my head:

Cookies For Breakfast

This is one of my all-time favorites, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it references the old school commercials for Cookie Crisp cereal, back when the cereal's mascots were the policeman, the burglar, and his burglar dog. I think the line came from an incredulous remark by the policeman about the absurdity of eating something as unhealthy as cookies for breakfast. Which leads to the main reason I like this band name: what's wrong with starting your morning with something delicious and totally unwholesome?

The Bulimics

Actually, I'd be surprised if there aren't already a half-dozen hardcore bands that have already adopted this moniker. And why not: it's gleefully offensive, and evokes imagery of depravity and vomiting. Additionally, if you take the average punk rock band, I guarantee that at least half of the members will look like they have some sort of an eating disorder. 

The Hearts on Fire

If I were to form a band today, this would be the name I would choose, because it references so much music that I love. I'm not talking about the Cut Copy jam, but the greatest rock song of all time, 'This Heart's On Fire' by Wolf Parade. Equally as important is the connection to the legendary Portland power-punk band The Exploding Hearts, who's sole album Guitar Romantic, I love with all of my heart. And finally, this band name is reminiscent of the greatest song name from the last few years, 'Sex on Fire,' of course.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My baby wants me dead ...

Leaving Death By Audio last night after the Vivian Girls show, I overheard a bro say to another bro "That was definitely one of the better shows I've seen in a long time." As a musical experience, I can't say I entirely agree with that bro, but as an overall spectacle, last night's show probably was one of the most memorable rock show's I've ever been to.

I show up at DBA in southwest Williamsburg a little after 8:30 pm, and was lucky I found it because there were no signs or advertisements on the street to denote its existence. I just happened on a group of hipsters starting to line up outside an unmarked door on a squalid building, and followed my intuition in. Once inside, Todd P was there personally checking IDs and marking the wrists of 21 year olds in red pen. The interior to DBA was a classic DYI Williamsburg setup, and I think I overheard someone saying that the show would have to be shut down if the police showed up.  Just two dingy, medium sized rooms, one with a stage for the performances, and the other with a merch table, and a makeshift bar selling PBR in can form. 

The show kicked off around 9:15 with openers Best Fwends, who were pretty much as retarded as their band name. I won't waste time describing their act, but suffice it to say they must have sucked dick to get on the bill, even at such a crappy venue.

Thankfully, the second group, Real Estate (picture above), were fantastic. I'd heard some buzz about them, and I kind of expected the group to be the typical Woodsist-esque lo-fi bandwagoners that are popping up in droves these days. However, they really won me over with their convincing musicianship, and jammy sound that reminded me a little bit of Yo La Tengo. I struggled through their set a little bit because the room was completely packed, and I was soaking in my own sweat, but I definitely look forward to checking out more of their stuff. Their opening song, 'Green River,' kicked ass.

After Real Estate, I briefly left the sauna-like performance room, but returned in time to catch almost all of the set by The Beets from Jackson Heights. They played straight no-frills bratty garage rock reminiscent of the Nuggets sound and the first wave of punk rockers. As one might expect from a 'Doug' referencing band, their sound was entertainingly juvenile and energetic. However, their formula got stale a little quickly, although they did do a mean version of 'Mean Mister Mustard' towards the end of the set.

In between acts, I was shocked to find myself standing next to former MTV superstar VJ John Norris, who was yammering on to some random dude. He may have been drunk, because I caught the following, somewhat embarrassing, snatch of conversation from Mr. Norris, something to the effect of: "I'm at the point where I've learned to block out what other people say about me, like 'he doesn't act his age, or he doesn't look his age.' You know what I do when I hear that kind of stuff? I stick my fingers in my ears and start saying 'NA-NA-NA-NA-NA'!"

Finally, the Vivian Girls took the stage, and the crowd went bananas. They were super high energy, imploring the audience at regular intervals to dance and make noise, and constantly remarking on how much fun they were having. Of course, they looked great. Kickball Katy was all smiles and swagger, and Cassie Ramone looked like she's just staggered out of a meth-lab, but was still in delirious mid-float. Unfortunately, the sound quality of the show was terrible. A lot could probably be blamed on the rooms acoustics, and on poor mixing. Katy's and Frankie's vocals were too low, so the band lost a lot of their girl group charm. Also, Cassie's guitars were drowned in the bass and drums. The set was composed almost entirely of new songs, which was exciting, but also disappointing in that I missed out on many of my favorites, in particular 'Where Do You Run' and 'No'. However they did a great 'Tell the World' performance. The highlight of the night was the encore, when the Girls launched into a ferocious version of 'Damaged,' that slowly became unhinged as they all traded instruments. In the song's cacophanous conclusion, Cassie, now on bass, grabbed two mic stands and held them up to her face and cooed, with eyes closed , "My baby wants me dead/ He wants to put a bullet in my head/ Tell me why, o why, does my baby want me dead?" The band pounded on their instruments making as much noise and feedback as possible for another minute before ending their show. It was a great finish to a fun, sometimes strange night.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

i'll tell the world

So, it looks like I'm going to the Vivian Girls show at Death By Audio tomorrow night. Right now it looks like I'll be rolling solo, which is cool, I'll be getting back to my Chicago-roots. 

Actually, to offset the loneliness of going to the show by myself, I plan to hookup with one of the Vivian Girls after the show. My preference would be the blonde (Cassie Ramone), but redhead Kickball Katy would be a close second. Compared to eating disorder-Cassie, Katy is pretty intimidating. She might be tough to handle. I'd settle for Frankie Rose (above, center) though if it came down to it. 

I haven't quite worked out a plan, I'm kinda new to this whole groupie thing. Maybe I'm supposed to hang around at the 'back door of the venue' after the show and wait for the band to come out. Or maybe I'm supposed to wander into their 'dressing room'? Do the Vivs already have other groupies? The though of competing against uber-hipster dudes for the affection of uber-hipster chicks frightens me, so I'll stop thinking about it. Instead, I'll move onto my next problem: how do I go about seducing a Vivian Girl? I could try coming on really strong and being hyper-flirtatious/stalkerish. Actually, I think I'll be really shy and coy around them (i.e. act my normal self) and bank on one of them misinterpreting my behavior as mysterious and inviting. I think my plan is pretty failproof. 

If everything goes smoothly, the Girls will right a song about me, preferably a retread of 'Going Insane' or 'Tell the World.' Hmmm, actually it would pretty cool if I was the inspiration for one of their heartbreak songs like 'Damaged', about getting ditched by a dude. Either way, I'll just assume any song about a dude on their next album is about me, unless it consists of them dissing the dude's sexual ability or penis size, ala-Lily Allen.

Damn, I can't wait. It's gonna be an awesome show ...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Roam, unless it's got that thing

Late one night last week, while suffering from the effects of sleep deprivation, I caved to my weaker impulses and paid an embarrasing amount of money to order a copy of the single 'Love Trinity', the final studio release from the Greatest Band of All Time, Life Without Buildings. Remarkably, the disc arrived at my apartment not 5 days later, and I found myself holding an item I had always considered a mythical document in my own 2 hands. I rabidly through the CD into my stereo system (my laptop) and hit play.

To put my excitement in perspective, I was only priorly familiar with 'Love Trinity' in its live form as the end to the A side of the incredible Live At The Annandale Hotel album. A very powerful track, I'd always considered it a sort of 'All Apologies' moment for Life Without Buildings frontwoman Sue Tompkins. Over a somber but poignant groove, Tompkins confessed "Don't leave the visual world/ I'm not willing to leave the visual world/ I'm not willing." Considering shortly after that album was recorded, the group disbanded as Tompkins left to pursue her interests in the visual arts, this statement held a lot of gravitas for me. In addition, the live version of the song closed with Tompkins murmuring "It's the end ..." as the music faded out. It has always been one of the most devastating moments in the history of pop music for me, and as such I've always viewed the studio version of 'Love Trinity' as a sort of holy grail, something that would give me a window into the Buildings legend.

As with much of the Buildings' catalogue, the studio version and live version of 'Love Trinity' seem very similar on the surface. Most of the lyrics are the same, and the tune maintains its muscular efficiency and catchiness in both forms. On its own, what sets 'Love Trinity' apart from all other Buildings songs is Tompkins vocal performance: she actually does some singing, rather than her usual spunky, cheerleader shouting. Surprisingly her singing voice turns out to be fairly melodic. She also displays a relatively high degree of lyrical economy, prefering to repeat certain key phrases over and over, instead of providing a steady stream of non-sequiters as in 'The Leanover' model of Buildings songs. As such, the listener is forced to try to figure out what she's trying to get at as she repeats "Roam, unless it's got that thing," and "It's a love trinity". Musically, the song also veers a bit from the usual Buildings blueprint: the opening features that gradual fade in of a throbbing baseline, before the usual beat and rythmic guitar riff drop in. Midway through there's also a sudden breakdown, with guitarist Robert Johnson performing probably the closest thing to a solo the band ever released. The passage is effectively melancholy, and leads into Tompkins cooing her "Roam ..." line a few more times as the song fades out. The song fits together as a beautiful whole, and fits easily in alongside the best songs of the Buildings' limited catalogue.

The single also contains 2 b-sides: 'Is Is and the IRS,' a studio outtake from the Any Other City sessions, and 'Daylighting,' which was included as a bonus on the US release City. The former appeared as the false climax on Annandale Hotel, and was a rousing, high energy moment in the live setting, with Tompkins responding to the crowd's malaise over the end of the show with a sudden "1 2 3 4!" The outtake is unpolished and a much more low key affair. The song has solid groove, but suffers from the slight, underwhelming production value that plagued parts of City. Additionally, its lyrics are remarkably bizarre and inscrutable, even by Buildings standards. All this adds up for one of the weaker songs in the Buildings canon, although it is still a fun and infectious track. 'Daylighting' comes out much better as bookend to this single than it did tacked on after 'Sorrow' on the original album. Both songs are relatively slow and quiet, which made it hard to appreciate the charms of the later track. Here it is something of a revelation: soft and bittersweet, affording another possible glimpse into the soul of Ms. Tompkins, who coos "I left you, I left you/ When we were young, when you were mine," before pleading to be "Taken to das kino." For superfans like myself, each line from Tompkins lips is worthy of over-analysis, because that is all Buildings left us with.

What's most interesting about the 'Love Trinity' single as a whole are the new directions it suggested for the band. 'Daylighting' and 'Trinity' were both slow numbers that improved upon the two ballads from the City LP, 'Envoys' and 'Sorrow.' Additionally, both displayed a lyrical directness that, while still opaque relative to just about any other band, suggest Tompkins was improving on her ability to use the sounds and imagery evoked by unrelated words to convey a particular emotional state. It is very difficult to imagine how Buildings might have evolved as a band, given the pared down signature sound of their debut. It's easy to speculate that they folded in the face of pressure to improve upon a formula that they had essentially already perfected. I however prefer to listen to the words of Sue Tompkins, and trust that artistic wanderlust was the true cause for her departure.

In all, I'm glad I made the absurd purchase, even though my Buildings thirst will never be completely quenched. Unless maybe I can get my hands on a copy of the original 'Leanover' single ... 

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Songs of the Week throwback

Remember when I used to do song of the week posts ever weeks? When I was young and full of life and and actually posted on a semi-regular basis, rather than the 0-4 times per month of late. Maybe my month off of posting has reenergized me a bit, or maybe I'm just in a perky mood, but what the hell! How about a 'songs of the week' post, for old times sake? And in a week's time I guarantee I'll either do another one, or get lazy and feel like I don't have enough time and neglect my posting.

'Wind Phoenix (Proper Name)' by Cymbals Eat Guitars

This is a new song! Cymbals Eat Guitars are a wildly talented group of 20 year old out of Staten Island who just self-released a very impressive if choppy and occasionally overproduced debut LP, Why There Are Mountains. Again, I repeat, the album is very strong, but 'Wind Phoenix' threatens to sabotage the whole mess by being almost too good. Lately I've been finding myself in the mood for some Cymbals, but I automatically skip to 'Wind Phoenix,' because I don't want to wait through the first 6 (mostly good) tracks for. The song has the overall feel of a recent Modest Mouse song, probably because it was produced by the same dude who did Mouse's last album. Now, I'm automatically suspicious of any rock song that begins with a trumpet section, but these kids have the ambition to make it all work. The song follows a very Brock-esque template, with a beginning section building to a crescendo with frontman Joseph Ferocious screaming at the top of his lungs. Then the song chills out for a bit, and builds back into the original melody from the beginning. The tune is deliciously catchy, but what gets me are the wonderfully non-sensical lyrics, my favorite being "make love to inanimate objects," followed closely by "we're not used to the pull, she said, got sent round infinity," and "eye on his liver, grayin' decayin'." As such, I have no idea what the song is about, but I don't really feel any urge to figure it all out. Definite song of the year candidate.

'Sword in the Stone' by Ted Leo

For good measure I thought I'd throw in an old song. 'Sword in the Stone' comes from a 2003 EP by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists which I recently discovered. The song in question is actually a solo affair, just Leo's melifluous voice and an electric guitar. Such is the case for the majority of the EP actually, save the rousing title track "Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead" and two throwaway dub experiments. Actually, the whole EP is fantastic, with Leo at his best: righteously pissed off, venting his fury into wonderfully catchy pop songs. I actually could have chosen any one of 4 or 5 of the tracks off the release for the prestigious song of the week status, but I chose 'Sword' because its hooks sink particularly deep, and its lyrics are some of the most pessimistic Leo has ever penned: "I'm not impressed with your desire to be the biggest in the bowl/ You'll still just be a little shit in a world that's just a big shit hole!" Once again, not really sure where the song's aimed, but given that it came out during Leo's activist phase, maybe the Bush administration? The republican led government? Knowing Leo, the meaning probably runs at least a little deeper than that. Whatever, I like to think you can direct the words from this song at anyone that you really hate: "And your crime won't make you a dime/ It's just like any other job where their gonna pay you for your time!" 

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pop music fast

I returned from a month long stay in Spain a couple of days ago, and for most of the duration of this trip I had extremely limited internet access. The first couple days of my trip were extremely busy, and without intending it, I didn't listen to any pop music. Then I decided I would see how long I could go without listening to pop music. I only lasted about 4 days before I caved, and I found myself listening to a lot of Neko Case. I’m not exactly sure what pulled me to her music, but I think it speaks to power of her songs that I chose her to break my pop music fast.  I ended up listening to, and then relistening to, her last 4 studio LPs (i.e. the Neko albums I own). This put me in a list-making mood, which I had to suppress for about 3 weeks. Now that I’ve got some time and prolonged internet access, it is my pleasure to present my top 3 Neko Case songs (as a solo artist, no New Pornos or Maow):

3. Twist the Knife

Off of Case's 2nd album, The Furnace Room Lullaby, 'Twist the Knife' sees her in full-on country soul ballad mode, belting some of the most masochistic lyrics ever put to tape: "Carefully, quietly, you took what's young from me/ Didn't deserve it, I gave it away/ Cowardly, thoughtlessly, you walk away from me/ And I'll tear my heart out to save you the day." The self-effacing lyrical content of this song would set the tone for much of Case's songwriting as her career moved forward. In addition, it boasts a killer guitar solo midway through.

2. A Widow’s Toast

This track is slotted towards the middle of Case's spectacularly spooky The Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, and album that saw her branching out lyrically into allegorical storytelling, and sonically into unusual arrangements and song structures. No song better epitomized these stylistic explorations than 'A Widow's Toast,' a thrillingly stripped down ode to loss and memory. The song is practically a capella, with only a faint background drone and the occasional guitar strum or piano note to accompany Case's piercing verses: "Better times collide with now, the tears were warm I feel them still/ They heat to vapor and disperse/ And cloud our eyes with weary glaze." A masterpiece of atmosphere, and one of the most purely beautiful songs I have ever heard. 

1. Deep Red Bells 

'Deep Red Bells,' off of Case's third album Blacklisted, is a fantastic song in its own right, but set against the context of Case's life story, it takes on a whole new meaning. The lyrics concern the Green River serial killer who took the lives of at least 48 women, mostly prostitutes, in the Seattle area throughout the 80s and 90s. Case has sighted the fear she felt as a young girl living on the streets of Tacoma, Washington during this time as her inspiration for writing the song, and nothing else she has done has so vividly evoked the sad vulnerability of her childhood. "The red bells beckon you to ride/ A handprint on the driver's side/ It looks a lot like engine oil/ And tastes like being poor and small/ And popsicles in summer," she sings. The first several verses of the song are accompanied by a swampy riff and mournful slide guitar, but the songs coda picks up to a rockabilly pace, as Neko asks "Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag/ Past empty lots, and early graves?/ For those like you who lost their way/ Murdered on the interstate/ While the red bells rang like thunder." What are the 'deep red bells'? Like much of Case's imagery, it's difficult to tell, but chances are that they represent something achingly personal, and terrifying to their author. Case has the remarkable ability to project personal emotions in her songwriting, and 'Deep Red Bells' conveys the fear and loneliness of a damaged childhood with painful clarity. 

Friday, June 26, 2009

guy punks, girl punks

Damn, so I guess its been almost 3 weeks since my last post. What can I say, the game got real son. Not much has happened since, although I did catch a pretty ill Ted Leo show at Toad's Place in New Haven. Really cool venue, I'd never been there before, but maybe I'll try to go back when my broski is at Yale. For a quick summary, Titus Andronicus were on first, and rocked my socks off, even though they were short one guitarist. This didn't really change much except that it meant Patrick Stickles couldn't do his harmonica solos, which was a big loss during their performance of 'Titus Andronicus.' Ted Leo and the Pharms were great, of course, and played an astonishing 105 minute long set. Actually, I wasn't a huge fan of Mr. Leo's song selection, and I feel like much of the set was made up of the band's inferior tunes. However, they did get around to 'Parallel or Together,' so how can I complain? They did a lot of new songs too, and some of the sound really catchy in that magical Ted Leo sort of way. Looking forward to the new album, whenever it drops. The highlight of the show may have been during the encore, when Ted came out solo with his guitar and ripped into heroics of 'Timorous Me.' In the background, the rest of the band took the stage, and when the second verse ended, they made a thunderous entry, just like on the record. Good stuff.

Anyways, my real impetus for returning to posting was inspired while I was making a dinner a moment ago, listening to 'The Alternate Side' on WBEZ. For the millionth time they played the blandly routine Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover of 'Sheena is a Punk Rocker.' Which got me to thinking, are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs the most overrated band ever?

I'm not gonna pretend I've got a deep knowledge of the group's catalogue, but what I have heard (the singles) has consistently underwhelmed me. Even 'Maps,' their supposed best song is pretty dull. Save the crunchy Nick Zinner chord change, the song doesn't really do anything for me. And the stuff off their most recent album? Okay, pretty good alt rock, but nothing too exciting.

Basically, I can accept the argument that the YYYs are a pretty good band. I trace to the massive amount of hype surrounding them to the unjustified worship of frontwoman Karen O. Why do people get so excited about this person? I feel like she falls in a long line of overrated lady rock stars who get a lot of hype because they can 'rock as hard as the guys can.' I just don't see Karen O doing anything new, or even doing anything better than her predecessors. She's just an above average rock vocalist but nothing more. I usually worship female alt rock stars, but I just can't understand the obsession with Karen O. Maybe if I did, I would 'get' this band, and I too would be a huge fan. But as it stands, I just haven't heard any great YYYs songs. I think the aforementioned remarkably average Ramones cover epitomizes how good this band actually is.

...alright, finally I spit some genuine negativity! 

Monday, June 8, 2009

Some hearts bleed, my heart sweats

Warning: For the following review of the debut album from Japandroids, Post-Nothing, brace yourself for a deluge of analogies to other musicians/songs. Describing what something sounds like is tremendously difficult, and I’m acting under the assumption that most people don’t yet know what Japandroids sound like. In my gushing review of their track ‘Young Hearts Spark Fires’ some weeks back, I missed my mark by a longshot in comparing the Japandroids’ sound to Pavement and the Replacements. The former is particularly off, although with less abstract lyrics and more shouting ‘Summer Babe’ would have slotted in nicely on Post-Nothing. The latter suggestion is marginally closer, especially in the sloppy drunk vibe evinced by the young Vancouverites. However whereas Paul Westerberg and co. were content to fuck around (brilliantly) for 3 or so albums, Brian King and Dave Prowse seem to have taken No Age’s ‘Sleeper Hold’ as a call to arms: with passion, they have chosen.


Perhaps Ian Cohen came a little bit closer in his review for Pitchfork when he described Post-Nothing as music for teens. To a certain extent, I agree with this statement, although I would liken the music of Japandroids to conjuring what Neko Case once described as “that teenage feeling.” On their myspace page, in fact, the band pithily describes its genesis as a “creative outlet for post-teenage angst.” However, whereas Neko, bless her heart, imagined “that teenage feeling” with tender nostalgia, her perspective was through the lens of a weary romantic pushing her mid-30’s. Japandroids, however, have a view from the front lines, and as they make clear throughout Post-Nothing, it ain’t pretty.


If anything, Japandroids sound like a precocious Meadowlands-era Wrens: they’re barely into their twenties, and life has already beaten them to a pulp. ‘Young Hearts Spark Fires’ opens with Prowse and King shouting “We finished our whole lives!” and continues with “We used to dream/ Now we worry about dying/ I don’t wanna worry about dying!” on the chorus. These boys seem all too aware of what future adulthood has in store, and want no part of it. They also sing about girls. A lot. Mostly they focus on the more lascivious side of the equation, particularly in the rousing numbers ‘Wet Hair’ and ‘Heart Sweats.’ In the latter, Prowse and King demonstrate their profound lyrical economy with memorable lines like “Your heart is cold as ice, girl, I should know I’ve been to the North Pole … Still my heart sweats.” Occasionally they veer into the realm of heartache, and do so quite successfully on tracks like “Sovereignty,” where they poignantly describe the anguish of geographical separation from a loved one.


If all of this sounds a bit too emo, it should, because both sonically and lyrically, Post-Nothing approximates No Age doing a pop-punk album. And this, it turns out, is a good thing, on multiple counts. First, in the burgeoning new no-fi genre, lyrical inscrutability has been a major issue for me, both in the sense of difficulty in understanding the words being sung thanks to distortion, and in the occasional implementation of pointlessly obtuse lyrics. The singing/yelling of the Japandroids dodges both bullets nimbly. Of particular note is their tendency towards repetition and lyrical straightforwardness, such that each song consists of only a handful of lines repeated over and over again, so that there is little chance of missing their direct meaning. Sonically, the No Age analogy works too, although I would go further to suggest that these tunes hew the closer to indie classics like Yo La Tengo’s ‘Sugarcube’ or Sonic Youth’s ‘Teenage Riot’: Specifically, moments when great rock bands took time-out from pushing musical boundaries to create brilliant pop songs that were able to retain a sense of edgy rawness. Impressively, Japandroids seem to have mastered this level of songcraft right out of the gates.


Lest I get too sycophantic, Post-Nothing does have its flaws. ‘Crazy/Forever,’ perhaps the album’s weakest track, is also, unfortunately, its longest (is it just me, or does that sort of thing seem to happen a lot?). Additionally, at 8 tracks over a scant 35 minutes, the album can feel a tad slight. I wonder how much greater could it have been with maybe a couple more solid tracks (like their ‘No Allegiance to the Queen’ off of myspace). Thankfully, however, each song on the album is fully realized and packs an individualized punch, diminishing the significance of the short run-time. Additionally, the tracks are sequenced brilliantly, book-ended by the wonderful, Thin Lizzy-inverting ‘The Boys Are Leaving Town,’ and the especially Wrens-like dirge, ‘I Quit Girls.’ The latter closes out the album on a near-perfect note. Over a piercing one-chord riff, Prowse and King relate the story of a girl who “wears white six days a week … and if you’re lucky, on the seventh day, she wears nothing.” Women like this can drive a (post) teenage boy mad, and after 7 songs of heart-pounding, adrenaline-drenched emotion, ‘I Quit Girls’ is the sound of sheer exhaustion. The album’s resolution: these boys are exhausted, and they’ve had enough of ‘teenage feelings’.

myspace: Japandroids

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Change the shapes, shape the change

A quick glance at my best of 2008 list indicates my difficulties in keeping abreast of new music last year. As a result, I didn’t discover many of my eventual favorites (‘L.E.S. Artistes,’ ‘Here Should Be My Home,’ ‘Across The Shields,’ etc.) until 2009 rolled around, and by that point it was too late to put them on any sort of year-end list. If I can’t do that, what’s even the point of listening to new music? In an effort to avoid another such catastrophe, I’ve been trying to keep a better tab on this year’s new shit. This a list of some of my favorite new songs from the last few months just to prove I’m ‘with it.’ No obscure personal discoveries, but still great stuff.

‘No Hope Kids’ by Wavves – As far as punk rock goes, you can’t get much closer to perfection than this. An absolutely indelible melody constructed simply of fuzzed-out guitar and pounded drums accompanied by Nathan Williams fuzzed-out vocals about having no car, no job, no money, no friends, no family, pretty much nothing, and not really caring about it.

‘Lisztomania’ by Phoenix – I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t really get into this song until I watched the youtube ‘brat pack mashup,’ and then I was hooked. I even went as far looking up a plot synopsis of ‘Pretty In Pink’ on Wikipedia, and moving the ‘Breakfast Club’ into my Netflix queu.

‘The Reeling’ by Passion Pit – When I saw Passion Pit back in January, several months prior to the release of their debut album, I was completely blown away by their set-opening song, with which I was unfamiliar. I’m not sure if that song was ‘The Reeling’, but the fact that I’m completely blown away every time I listen to it makes me think so.

‘The Dark’ by Woods – Imagine my disappointment when I threw on Woods most recent, Songs of Shame, only to find that it was lacking my favorite new Woods song. Despite the consistent strength of that album, I couldn’t help but feel gypped out of this little psychedelic pop gem, whose sweet summer melody runs in perfect contrast to it’s foreboding title and spooky vocals.

‘Reasons to Quit’ by Phosphorescent – Matt Houck perfectly timed the release of his Willie Nelson tribute album to the sudden emergence of my interest in country music. The brawny, straightforward lyrics about substance addiction here are perfectly suited to Houck’s fragile heartfelt delivery. The next song on the album, ‘Too Sick Too Pray,’ might be even better.

‘Call and Response’ by Times New Viking – Great pop music shouldn’t require much expense. All you really need is a guitar, a drum kit, a keyboard, a battered analog tape recorder, a killer hook, and a male/female vocal harmony to sing/shout “It’s not even close to ending!” Thanks TNV, I most certainly hope it isn’t.

And, conspicuously absent from this list, any hip-hop songs, because hip-hop sucks in 2009!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Just a random observation: what's with all these hot new bands putting out songs named after their own band. Some examples: 'Crystal Stilts' by Crystal Stilts, 'Titus Andronicus' by Titus Andronicus, 'Wavves' by Wavves (off the Wavves LP), etc. I guess it's kind of a hipply slacker sort of thing to do. Self-reference in Indie music makes me think of hip-hop. The latter genre really pioneered the idea of shouting yourself out in your own song, not to mention in the title of your song. Self-titled songs have occasionally marked career highlights in rap, like 'Method Man' by Wu-Tang, or the Souljah Boy song. So what is the allure for these indie dudes? Is it dumb irony to be like souljah boy, or is it actually a savvy marketing strategy borrowed from the technique mastered by rappers? Not sure, but all of the indie tracks I mentioned above are pretty solid, so if nothing else, these band's know that they need to write a good song if they're going to put their group's name on it. Personally though, I like my rapper influence theory.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

In the wee small hours ...

Over the last few weeks I've gotten into the weird habit of putting on an album as I go to bed every night. Not sure how this got started, originally it was just one song to send me to sleepyland, then all of a sudden I started playing Any Other City by Life Without Building in its entirety every night after I'd put out the lights. For some reason I wanted to listen to a sexy brittish voice cooing suggestive non-sequiters to me over a bed warm and gooey post-punk grooves as I drifted off. The thing is, I rarely made it past 'The Leanover' before conking out, so it's not like I was even getting to enjoy the full album experience. This lasted for about a week or so, but then I started to branch out, mainly into dronier stuff like Yo La Tengo and My Bloody Valentine. Last night I was in an odd mood, and threw on Bonnie Billy's I See A Darkness. After a few songs I was wandering in and out of conciousness, but snapped back right at the conclusion of 'Black', just in time for 'Raining In Darling,' which ended my night on a near-perfect note. The habit is starting to spill over, though. Woke to my alarm at 9 this morning and decided to lay in bed for a few minutes as I didn't have any obligations until 11:30. Put on Vivian Girls for no apparent reason, heard the opening strains of 'All the Time' and immediately passed out for another 45 minutes. Oops.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Song of the Week

I'm not going to even pretend to know what week this post is supposed to represent. Who cares, this post might as well represent all of 2009 so far, because I've gotta really strain my brain to think of anything better than Japandroids 'Young Hearts Spark Fires' released in the last 5 months.

Where do I begin, this song has it all. Soaring, bleeding guitars crash into the thunderous drumming from this wondrous two man show. The duo wails each word of the song together in desperate two part harmony over a fantastically catchy melody, and their entire sound seems to be drowning in a garagey murk. Heaping praise on a two part group that can make a lot of noise and that plays lo-fi noise pop is painfully amateur right now, I'm aware. But these guys sound too damn sincere and their sound too damn timeless to be considered the product of any sort of popular fads in the indie music scene. If anything, its a blessing that they emerged in this atmosphere, because it means folks might actually give a fuck about the gloriously sloppy and unpolished music they are creating. Lets be grateful for that.

Now that I've done some ranting, I'll get back to actually talking about the song. Both sonically and lyrically it strikes directly at the confusion/romanticism/disillusionment of crossing the threshold from youth to adulthood. So much so, in fact, that I feel like if someone cleaned the song up and gave it some sparkling/nauseating production and a nasally voiced singer, it would sound just like the top of the charts pop punk that dominated the radio a few years ago during the heyday of Fall Out Boy and their ilk. Still, I feel the lack of pretension or self-awareness in both the bands delivery of their tune, and in their lyrical trappings, separates them from such potentially dangerous links. Check out some of the lyrics:
You can keep tomorrow, after tonight we're not gonna need it
Beat up, beat down, on the ground, we're too drunk to feel it

I can't help but think of some of the slacker greats of indie history listening to these guys, like Pavement, or my beloved Replacements. At the very least, its hard to deny that the tune has one of the better song titles in recent memory.

Check it out the Japandroids myspace:

Monday, May 25, 2009

Singing from my little point and aching in my every joint

I'm not quite sure I can do justice to last Thursday's Bonnie 'Prince' Billy show at the Apollo Theater due to my lengthy delay in writing about it. Thankfully, it was an impressionistic enough experience with enough highlights that I should still be able to cobble together something at least moderately representative. Here goes.

I arrived at the theater with younger brother/straight baller Rob Holowka at around 8:30. I'd had little prior experience with this part of Harlem, and it seemed pretty legit. However, once inside the theater, it was nothing but young white, hip folks, so I don't think I quite got the authentic Apollo experience. I guess I'll have to start hitting up Amature night with greater frequency. 

The opening act, Lightening Dust I believe, were on when we got in, and they were pretty dull. They played electric folk, and their frontwoman sang with a vibrato, but that's about all I remember. In between sets I wandered over to the bar to try to get some water. The wait lasted a grueling 20 minutes at least, and BPB took the stage with his band while I was still in line. After finally making it to the bar, turning down the $4 water, then returning to my seat, I suddenly recognized the words Will Oldham was singing: "Your face, your race, the way that you walk." Realizing I had just missed most of a cover of Bowie's '5 Years,' I grew irritated. '5 Years' is not only one of my favorite Bowie songs, but in my opinion one of the greatest album opening tracks of all time. Goddamn it. But I digress. Oldham had brought quite an ensemble on stage with him, between 7-8 pieces depending on if Matt Sweeney or the saxophonist were on stage. They were obviously well rehearsed, and made wondrous country-folk together. Of particular note was fiddle player and chief back-up singer, Cheyenne Meyers. I can say without reservation that this woman was an actual 10. In addition, her singing and fiddling were fantastic. Even her name is hot. I mean, 'Cheyenne'? Come on! Remarkably, however, even she was unable to upstage the presence of Will Oldham. I'd gone in with some reservations about the quality of the showmanship and performances (I mean, this guy never tours!). But Oldham leaped around stage, making wildly overdramatic gesticulations, screwing his face into exaggerated expressions, and staring wildly into the crowd. He was very economical with his between song banter, but this didn't put me off at all. He turned in some incredible vocals too, much better than what I'd been expecting from listening to his albums. And that he was able to keep his pipes going strong through the nearly 2 hour long set was all the more impressive.

If the performances of Oldham and his band were pleasantly surprising, the set list left me a bit disappointed. Once again, I had no idea what to expect in this regard going in, although I knew I probably wouldn't be familiar with a lot of the material covered given my relative unfamiliarity with most of the post I See A Darkness pre Beware BPB catalogue. Surprisingly, the band hardly touched Beware for the first hour or so if there set, but finally settled into a string of strong performances from the album. 'You Don't Love Me' and 'I Am Goodbye' were particularly rewarding, although the band left out a few of my favorites from the LP, including the title track and 'I Don't Belong to Anyone.' Overall, the songs came off as much more lush and exciting live than on the relatively turgid album. BPB and co. also took on a few Palace era tunes, notably 'The Sun Highlights the Lack in Each' and 'A Group of Women' off Arise, Therefore. The full band dynamic added new dimensions to these songs, turning their skeletal structures into fully-formed pieces that worked out wonderfully. In general, most of the the songs with which I was unfamiliar were rousing and exciting. One of the performances, for which guitarist and Superwolf collaborator Matt Sweeney took stage, was particularly memorable. It involved a story about a dude unwilling to give up his lady to another dude, and involved a campy gothic spoken word interlude in which the aforementioned Cheyenne and Oldham talked solemnly about an act of adultery committed by the former. It was exactly the kind of fun I'd been hoping for going into this concert. 

The show ended with a corny hootenany freestyle session with all of BPB's band and the members of Lightening Dust, and one song encore, brining the set to nearly 2 hours. It was a fantastic experience overall, but I can't help but think I would have enjoyed a more minimalist show even more. I envision Will Oldham and maybe a couple other dudes on stage, back in the Palace days, playing that incarnation's emotionally-bare songs of pure desperation. Those are the Will Oldham moments that speak most to me, the unfiltered expressions of the id from a confused young man. Thursday night's show, in contrast, had an air of maturity, by one who'd finally come to grips with and even grown comfortable with himself, and his station in life. It seems that all of those ideas Oldham expressed in the shimmering early BPB song 'A Minor Place' have come to fruition.  That was the kind of show I saw on Thursday, and all of that considered, it was pulled off very well.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why am I workin here, it ain't workin here!

Looks like Cam finally dropped the new album, and from the reviews, it sounds pretty wretched. While I suppose I shouldn't judge until I've heard it, I know what bad Cam'ron sounds like, and it's not pretty. That all doesn't detract from the power of former song of the week 'I Hate My Job,' now called just simply 'My Job' on the album. As a matter of fact, the album version is even better than the version that came out with the dingy video (and you don't have to listen to the guy telling Cam'ron that they're "not hiring murderers" for the zillionth time). Check it out on link below. Poor sound quality warning. At least we can resign ourselves to Cam putting out 1 transcendent track per album, but seriously, what a monumental waste of talent.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Great Moments in Songwriting, Pt. 1

In the run-up to the Bonnie 'Prince' Billy show at the Apollo a week from Thursday, here is the magnificent second verse from one of the greatest Palace songs of all time, 'The Weaker Soldier' from the masterpiece Arise Therefore album (see right).

Sold down the lane, in a way to restrain
You from calling a name and then regretting
If you say what you own, then you are always alone
And then what postpones the good death?
We are those who break laws when the cold body thaws
Who prefer breaking jaws but must lower ourselves
Unfit though we are to let you get very far
Still we would never mar your rightful dues

And I have not been feeling the same
I am not fit to carry your name
I am not fit, and I am not willing
To go on

For real, I could quote the full song, because verses 1 and 3 are just as good as two. But I love the 5th and 6th lines of this verse, 'We are those who break laws ...' Internal rhyming that would make Nas proud. The chorus of the song is what gets me though: I have not been feeling the same ... 

If you're in the right mood, it really hits you, and its almost too much to take.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Vivz + Timez Nu Viking @ Ballroom

Hit the Bowery Ballroom tonight for an absolutely killer double bill: Times New Viking and the Vivian Girls. There was an opening act too, wonderfully named 'Stupid Party,' but I missed them because I was seeing the new Star Trek movie. Got out of the movie (which was fucking rad) at ~9:46, and ran to the Bowery Ballroom from the Regal Theater at Union Square. Less than 10 minutes later I was there (felt like I was goin sub-7 along the way). Lady at the door assured me TNV hadn't gone on yet, so I hit the bathroom. As I was finishing up, I heard the crowd begin to cheer on the floor above me. Almost perfect timing.

As I made my way up the stairs to the performance area, Adam (the drummer) was saying something about "... our president smokes cigarettes," and then they launched into their first song (which I don't remember). It was a pretty standard TNV show: rapid-fire Ramones-esque pace, with the brief between song interjections by Adam (ex. "This song isn't about drugs"). Unfortunately, something about the band felt limp and bedraggled, unfortunate considering their tour just began. They just didn't seem to be having that much fun on stage, quite a contrast from the last time I saw them play at P4k '08. Beth looked positively haggard: maybe it was the lighting, but the bags beneath her eyes looked like they weighed a ton each. Whatever, I was still hypnotized by her, especially when she ditched the keyboards for a bright red electric guitar when the band played one of the 'new songs.' Actually, the song totally sucked, which highlights another major problem I had with the show: they didn't do my favorite songs. In fact, they hardly touched Ripped Off, playing maybe 3 songs from their breakout LP from last year. And they didn't play 'Teenage Lust!'! Goddamn it, that's all I really wanted! Egregiously, their set lasted approximately ~27 minutes, then they made a swift exit. I mean, I'm all about the Ramones thing, but that's going a little too far. Especially when they missed so many awesome tunes. At least they did 'Call and Respond,' maybe their 2nd best song. And when they were playing, I was definitely going ga ga. But c'mon, 27 minutes? What was the big hurry? I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, and just assume drug consumption contributed to the early departure. But honestly, after getting so pumped for this show, I was a little disillusioned afterwards.

Thankfully the Viv Grrlz kicked ass. Their set was even more Ramones like in terms of loud fast songs with few short positives, but unlike TNV, they were excited and full of energy. I'm not as familiar with their stuff, but the passion they brought to their girl-group-surf-punk-lo-fi-garage rock odes to the disorienting highs and lows of love was intoxicating, and the crowd loved every minute of it. I'm a pretty expressive music fan, but even I was embarrassed by how some of the dudes were responding to the music. But honestly, who could blame them? Cassie Ramone and Kickball Katy were positively babelicious (shwing!), and the fun they were having was contagious. I'll even forgive them for skipping over their best song ('Where Do You Run' of course). Especially awesome was when they started to jam out on their last few songs, and let the shoegazey distortion slip into overdrive. The set concluded with the Vivz rotating instruments, which somehow turned out to be awesome. It was so enthralling that I wasn't even that disappointed when the Gurlz left without an encore. Great show.

Stuck around for a moment afterwards, and saw Beth Murphy chatting with some altish looking randos, probably just fans. I hovered for a bit hoping to get in a word with my goddess idol, but these bros would not quit. In the end, I took inspiration from Hutch Harris, and "I let it go." Perhaps the next time. And hopefully TNV will put a little more life into it then.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Songs of the Week (5/3)

Yeah, it's been a while. I'm busy, okay? Anyways, this is an extra special addition of 'songs of the week': the first ever videos of the week. It just so happens that my songs of the week have ill videos. Now, I still haven't figured out how to embed videos into my blog, so you'll just have to follow the damn link. But trust me, it will be worth it.

'I Hate My Job' by Cam'ron

Remember 'I.B.S.' off of Cam'ron's ill-fated Killa Season? Cam had spent most of that album, and it's forerunner Purple Haze, cultivating his image as a complete dick-head. In between his incredible free-associative lyrical wordplay, Cam'ron came off as an arrogant prick. Although this persona was charismatic to a certain point, it ultimately led to his downfall, and contributed to his alienation from virtually the entire rap community. 'I.B.S.' however was the one moment in which Cam let his guard down and spoke from the heart about the crippling gastrointestinal affliction that had had him contemplating suicide. I've sung its praises before on this blog, so I'll say no more, but I wanted to draw the connection to this new joint, the first track released from the long delayed Killa Season follow-up, Crime Pays. 'I Hate My Job' is a return to Cam'ron's vulnerable side, a canny move considering his current position in the eyes of most rap fans. His first verse comes from "the average everyday working woman," quite a departure for this avowed misogynist. The second verse details the struggles of an unemployed dude who gets patronized and rejected at job interviews, then returns home to find his woman is throwing him out of the house. Cam'ron tells the story humorously with his standard lyrical flare, and it would be easy to read this song as a context specific appeal to the common man. However, I see something a little deeper. Check out the chorus:

I put on my pants, put on my shoes 
I pray to god, paid all my dues
I'm tryin' to win, seems like I was born to lose
All I can say (yeah yeah yeah yeah)
I say let me through, but they won't let me through
You wanna quit?
Goddamn I'm ready to
The lifestyle I'm livin', ain't steady boo
All I can say ...

For once, Cam is seeming to acknowledge that he's in dire straights, and that he's dug himself into a hole from which he might not escape. With his career on the skids, it sounds like he's contemplating giving up and moving on. I'd wager that much will be determined by how Crime Pays fares. With this track though, I'd be cautiously optimistic about Cam's future. Of course it helps that the beat is a marvelous, catchy throwback to Kanye's early chipmunk soul days, sort of like 'Let The Beat Build' but much better. The video looks like it cost about $60 to make, which probably works to the song's favor. It's also hilarious. Check it out:

'Lessons Learned' by Matt and Kim

It feels totally entry level to post about this video, since its already been buzzing around the internet for a few weeks. But what the fuck, its a great video, and I'm hooked on the song. I love how Matt's super upbeat, chirpy vocals contrast with ultra emo lyrics: 'And so I stayed up all night/ Slept in all day/ This is my life/ Thinking 'bout tomorrow won't change how I feel today!' Also, the video really caters to my fascination with public nudity. It's a remarkable feat, even if certain moments seem a bit staged. I love the part where Matt casually tosses his underwear into the sky. See for yrself: