Wednesday, March 25, 2009

HSW Newsflash: New Isbell dates

New JI&T400U dates added, including three South Carolina dates! Jason's playing the Windjammer on Isle of Palms (which is essentially Charleston.) When I was but a lad, my family used to go the Windjammer on its less rambunctious nights, have chicken sandwiches, and my brother and I would play the arcade games while my parents enjoyed a beer or two. It'll be nice to bask in a little nostalgia while Jason and the guys rock out.

New dates are underlined:

Wed-Mar-25 Little Rock, AR Sticky Fingerz
Thu-Mar-26 Oklahoma City, OK Wormy Dog Saloon
Sat-Mar-28 Telluride, CO Sheridan Opera House
Mon-Mar-30 Flagstaff, AZ Green Room
Tue-Mar-31 Tucson, AZ Club Congress
Thu-Apr-02 Los Angeles, CA Spaceland
Fri-Apr-03 San Francisco, CA The Independent
Sat-Apr-04 Sacramento, CA Blue Lamp
Sun-Apr-05 Portland, OR Doug Fir
Mon-Apr-06 Seattle, WA Tractor Tavern
Wed-Apr-08 Salt Lake City, UT The State Room
Thu-Apr-09 Aspen, CO Belly Up
Fri-Apr-10 Vail, CO The Sand Bar
Sat-Apr-11 Denver, CO The Bluebird
Sun-Apr-12 Kansas City, MO Knuckleheads
Tue-Apr-14 Lincoln, NE Knickerbockers
Wed-Apr-15 St. Paul, MN The Turf Club
Thu-Apr-16 Madison, WI High Noon Saloon
Fri-Apr-17 Chicago, IL Double Door
Sat-Apr-18 Rock Island, IL Daytrotter Presents at Rock Island Brewing Company

Thu-Apr-23 Knoxville, TN Barleys Taproom
Fri-Apr-24 Auburn, AL Strutting Duck (Outdoors)
Sat-Apr-25 Oxford, MS Double Decker Arts Festival (3:30PM)

Tue-Apr-28 New Orleans, LA The Howlin' Wolf
Wed-Apr-29 Houston, TX Walters on Washington
Thu-Apr-30 San Antonio, TX Sam's Burger Joint
Fri-May-01 Austin, TX Antone's
Sat-May-02 Dallas, TX Granada Theater

Tue-May-05 Gainesville, FL Common Grounds
Wed-May-06 Tampa, FL Crowbar
Thu-May-07 Orlando, FL Backbooth
Fri-May-08 Savannah, GA Locos
Sat-May-09 Isle of Palms, SC The Windjammer

Wed-May-13 Columbia, SC Sudworks Taphouse
Thu-May-14 Charlotte, NC The Visulite Theater
Fri-May-15 Greenville, SC The Handlebar
Sat-May-16 Huntsville, AL Crossroads

Sat-Jun-06 Ozark, AR Wakarusa

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cover Stories: What they're telling us through cover art - Vol 3

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South

Despair. Well, apparently I'm in a different band now. Whatevs. Bright Eyes, Mystic Valley Band...we'll all be disintegrated into the cold earth someday, and the worms will carelessly devour us and then shet us out into the dirt that we really are. But since some people thought last year's record was so good, I went ahead and made another one with my new band. There's like ten guys in my band, and they're all decks. Of course everyone is a deck. My art director, who is a betch, said we should all be on the cover. I said that's shet but she made us do it anyway. So I put on my peenk sweater and slapped on a blindfold. It helps me imagine I'm in my happy place: My parents' 4 bedroom suburban tudor-style house, playing XBox360 in the rumpus room and drinking Quick through a crazy straw--uh, I mean burning the petals off a withering rose in my dreary apartment. And might I add: Despair.

Bonnie Prince Billy - Beware

When I'm not creating profound if not slightly gothic-Americana folkery, I like to dabble in a sort of pet passion: Product branding and marketing. When I launch my professional rustic-songwriter consulting business (I've said too much already!) I'm going to need a snazzy motto. My thought is "What's Above the 'Stache". So basically nothing below my bristly soup strainer can be visible. Also of note: cover my nose and eyes and what's left kinda looks like a horse. I'm thinking I can incorporate that subliminally...but how? (Leans back in plush leather chair, swirls brandy, thinks)

Monday, March 23, 2009

A guilty pleasure: Bastards of the Beat by the Damnwells

There was a lot of chatter among the folk rock/singer-songwriter fan web presence in the years following the release of Bastards. I had a track or two, but never committed much scrutiny to a band whose appeal was basically hearsay. When I was fingering through the used bin sometime in 2005 or so, I saw Bastards for $1.99 and figured it was worth the measly investment. Didn't take long to hear why these guys were earning some fans. The album is littered with stellar hooks. Alex Dezen's vocals are rich and proud, a lot like Dave Beilanko from Marah. Also, my research is telling me that drummer Steven Terry was briefly involved with Whiskeytown.

The reason I'd label the Damnwells a guilty pleasure and not a hidden gem is because of the flashes of groan-inducing poppiness scattered throughout the album. "I Will Keep the Bad Things From You" has a nice feel, but the lyrics are dreadful. Also, Denzen's delivery often devolves to mainstream pop inflections, and it's a bit unsettling. For instance, the word "you" sounds more like "Yaaaaahw" which smacks of teen pop-star and drives me fucking nuts.

It's nothing revolutionary; they won't be trailblazers. And it's not really a man's music (college freshman girl comes to mind.) But it's not like they're John Mayer or Augustana or one of these other weenies on parade. There's a little bit of edge to it, even if it would do little more than nick your chin.

I feel like any seasoned listener can recognize the quality arrangements and well crafted hooks Bastards of the Beat has to offer. I'd posit that a solid pop-rock album is like an enema: You feel kinda goofy when it's going on, but when it's over with, you're cleansed like no other. Then it's back to the real soul food.

Here's a nice little compilation of the songs from the album:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Progression Discussion: The fightin' 1564

Hard as it is to grasp, we're about to wrap up the first decade of the millennium, and what we could consider the sixth decade of rock and roll. That's a lot of music. Lot of albums. Lot of songs.

It's a testament to the versatility of songwriting, and indeed music, when you consider there is still plenty of original-ish stuff going on. Granted, just as much if not more derivative hogwash is around. And of course no man is without an influence. Notwithstanding, our guitar-slinging and drum-thumping heroes never seem to get tapped out creatively. To quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: "Life finds a way."

Indeed, it's rare that the lightning strikes twice in the songwriting world. Whenever there's fingerpointing regarding copycats, we usually hear about it (i.e. the recent Coldplay and Satriani stink.) But any musician or music fan knows there are only so many chords, and only so many ways to play them in order to maintain popular appeal.

WARNING: A brief lesson in music theory follows. If it confuses you, don't worry. Just bear with me.

Take any song on the radio, and you can be sure that it's made up of a bunch of chords. The simplest songs can be made up of only a few chords. Sometimes as few as three or, in rare cases, two. But the chords are sequenced in what we call "progressions". A Major to E major to D major is a progression.

It gets a little tricky when you get into numerical assignations: The root chord for a key is "I" and the 2nd is "ii" and the third is "iii". Each of those numbers is assigned with a chord type: I is major, ii is minor, iii is minor, IV is major, etc. etc. (edit: Minors are indicated by lowercase roman numerals.)

Have I lost you? For this column, it's not overly important that you know why those are the numerical values of the chords, only that they exist. So anyway, musicians will refer to chord progressions as numbers. I-IV-V-IV is absolutely ubiquitous (think "Louie Louie", "Wild Thing", or "Walking on Sunshine"). I-V-IV is a folk/rock standard (think "Helpless", "Knockin on Heaven's Door", or "Sway" by the Rolling Stones.) The I-vi-IV-V is widely known as the doo-wop progression, used largely in 50 pop (think "Earth Angel", "Unchained Melody" and "Shaboom Shaboom".)

You can see that no song is completely original at its core. Not hard to comprehend when you consider there are only 7 chords within each major key to create a song--granted, reaching for chords out of a key is not uncommon by any stretch. But if a song is in G, chances are your chords are going to be some combination of G, A minor, B minor, C, D, E minor, or F# diminished. And most pop and rock songwriters will utilize only five or six of those per song. But with variations on melody, rhythm, lyrics, timbre, and all the other factors that go into musicmaking, it's not hard to create something that's completely unique from another song with the same chord structure.


There is one progression that has been absolutely beaten to death over the past 20 years or so:

The I-V-vi-IV. (For ease of typing, I will henceforth refer to it as the 1564.)

You might know it better as Bush's "Glycerine":

or U2's "With Or Without You":

Now, who cares, right? Like I said earlier, all progressions are reused. So what if a few songs have the old 1564? Should it matter?

Well, no. It doesn't matter. But what I've come to realize is that this particular progression has seemingly limitless pop rehash value. I've managed to ascertain this information through empirical evidence I collected in certain pop-friendly locations: Subway, the bowling alley, the barber shop, the gym. Each plays top 40 type music ad nauseam, and its when visiting any one of these places that I realize the ubiquitous nature of the 1564.

It's really quite remarkable. While I don't have specific data to back this up, I wouldn't be surprised if every third song on today's Top 40 stations is based in some way around the progression. I've also noticed commercials for pharmaceuticals and online colleges tend to use stock 1564 instrumentals as background tracks. So why is this so effective?

The Jonas Brothers probably use a shitload of 1564, BAAAYBOOOAAY!!

The answer probably has something to do with two things: Attention spans and emotional appeal. Allow me to address both.

The 1564 has a leg up on many of the most popular progressions simply because it cycles through four different chords at a pace that doesn't lag. Each chord is held for a measure before it gives way to the next one. It's the perfect progression for this generation's pitiful attention spans. It's the same reason video producers won't allow a shot to idle for more than 3 seconds before cutting to something different. If our interest is allowed to wither, there's no reason to believe we won't change the channel or radio station. So the 1564 is dynamic, and it isn't overly repetitive. By the time the 1 rolls back around, we're ready for it.

But there are other progressions that have four different chords. The doo-wop one I mentioned earlier for instance (that was the 1645.) So why is the 1564 so much more prevalent? It's more relatable, is why. I'd argue that the major-major-minor-major structure is conducive to Hollywood archetypes to which, I'd wager, we subconsciously cling. Think about it this way:
I - Major: Your root chord, fresh, happy, suggests new beginnings and excitement
V - Major: The strong, faithful fifth, powerful and proud, suggests bravery and derring-do.
vi - Minor: Remember, minor=sad. The thoughtful, emotional sixth, adding a bit of reality and concern to the mix.
IV - Major: Hooray! The fourth swoops in and provides closure, that major brilliance that retains almost all the same tones as the I; we're almost home kids!
Doesn't that kind of read like your typical Hollywood tearjerker/romantic comedy/unromantic comedy/horror flick. This may seem a bit contrived, but ask any songwriter and they'll agree in principle. There are actually emotional assignations for each major scale chord, and any good songwriter has a hold on what they are. As Leonard Cohen put it, "The minor fall and the major lift." Although that's a pretty rudimentary connection, it's what he's talking about.

I guess the biggest caveat to which I must call attention is that I am a musician. And I never really took notice of this phenomenon before I started learning music theory and writing my own songs. Chances are you may not take any more notice of the 1564 after reading this than you did before. And that's fine; my goal wasn't to overobjectify your listening experiences, or to condemn the 1564 to progression purgatory. Granted, I do feel it's overused but it can still be effective.

But really it's just marketing analysis. In the same way that companies spend millions on marketing research, it interests me to figure out why certain things (for lack of a better word) boast such a mass appeal. The 1564 is a prime example of that. Some might argue, "It just sounds good." And that's fine and acceptable. But hopefully I've helped to shed some light on why.

Follow us on Twitter

It's all in the title folks.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy 100

That Pixies post was our 100th. Hooray. Here to play our 100th Post Spectacular Party is a very influential band with a Spanish name. I think you know who I'm talking about...Yo La Te--

(Played out guitar progression begins)

What the hell?

Los Lonely Boys? What's going on?

Henry Garza: 100 posts in just under two years does not get you Yo La Tengo. You get what you pay for vendejo!

HSW: ¡Que lastima!


Edit: I jumped the gun a bit, technically we only have 93 posts and seven in the works, so it reads as 100 in our admin section. Whatever, I'm leaving the post. Self-praise fail.

HSW Newsflash: Pixies reunite (for a gig)

NME reports the Pixies will be playing the Isle of Wight festival in June. Might this breed more gigs? A tour? New record? Respecitively: Could be, could be but probably not, and less likely then an eight page Frank Black photo spread in Men's Health.

I for one would gladly truck it to Atlanta or Charlotte to hear "Monkey Gone to Heaven".

Here's a Letterman performance of said song, so Thomas can swoon over Kim Deal. Note Paul Annoyingface providing some keys:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Steel Chairs Taste Metallic

If you've missed it: Wayne dissed Win, Win snapped back.

As a fan of both, I'm a bit torn. Who to side with?

Their back-and-forth jawing resembles some classic mid-90s WWF storyline build-ups that would eventually lead to a big pay-per-view showdown. It's the kind of situation where "Mean" Gene Okerlund would interview Wayne, his championship belt draped over his shoulder, and Wayne would spit provocative soundbytes until he was met with a Win Butler chairshot.

So just like Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels did at Wrestlemania X, I say we settle this in the squared circle. Both have songs conducive to wrestling entrance music ("Gash" for Wayne, "Wake Up" for Win). A Flaming Lips concert is a lot like the Ultimate Warrior's entrance sequence, what with the confetti and bright colors. And Win's band hails from Canada, which boasts a proud pro-wrestling pedigree.

This has all the makings of a slobberknocker!

March 11, 2009: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

North Charleston Performing Arts Center
March 11, 2009

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals have been the backbone of my live music world over the past five years. I don't just say this because I've seen them 11 times (First in 2004 in Atlanta, their 4th show as a band with an almost completely different roster; and finally last night in Charleston, with only 7 shows remaining as a band if you believe Ryan's declaration), but rather that they manage to cover the spectrum of concert-going experiences. On the one hand, they can put on a show that confirms not only his music, but live music itself. Rich setlists, with Ryan recalling his finest work and letting his vocal and lyrical prowess own the night. On the other hand, they can roll out a paint-by-numbers kind of set that ends prematurely and is nothing short of underwhelming.

The unfortunate truth is I haven't seen Ryan do one of those confirming sets since the fifth time I saw him. And that was in 2005, coincidentally the year he released his last solid abum. Since then, every show has had its issues. Walk-offs, disappointing setlists, short sets, and of course the disastrous Atlanta '08 show in which he called it quits after an hour due to a failing voice, despite the events staffers telling us they'd been instructed the show would end early prior to the gig.

But whatever. I've come to expect that sort of thing from a guy who has always been more concerned about himself than his fans. But in that regard, that's why I enjoy most of his music. Corny as it sounds, his best songs are painfully personal with a touch of spite and angst. Only recently has he started writing music that is ostensibly for the fans, rife with broad messages of motivation and joy. This is something U2 has made a living off of over the past decade or so, right? So the formula can work. But unfortunately, Ryan's best talent will always be looking you squarely in the eye as opposed to preaching to a congregation.

All that said, my expectations were severely tempered for last night's gig at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. The good news: He married Mandy Moore the day before, so he could be in a better-than-usual mood. Tour reports thus far were varying, leaning towards the positive. The setlists looked OK, and Ryan's spirits were high.

Ryan and the band entered just before 9 PM. They started things off with a rousing "Beautiful Sorta", the rocker from 2005's Cold Roses. Before the song, Ryan did something I've never seen him do. He actually spoke to us before the first song. Normally you won't get a word out of him until four or five songs in.

The band didn't stray much from setlists of the past year or two, leaning heavily on Heartbreaker material and ignoring Gold, Demolition and Jacksonville City Nights altogether. "I See Monsters" was heavy and lumbering, and brought quite a few of us to our feet. Guitarist Neal Casal played three of his originals that sent audience members streaming to the beerlines and restrooms. The songs were poorly injected into the setlist, killing any momentum Ryan had been building up to that point.

It seems, though, that he didn't care. For the first time, he didn't seem to let the audience affect him negatively. In fact, one of the finest moments of the night involved Ryan playfully apologizing to a girl in the front row who seemed disinterested. This is the kind of thing that might have caused an explosion a year or two ago. But Ryan instead led the band in a surprisingly fulfilling improv song about them sucking. The song was funny, sure, but what really struck me was the loose composition, the hollers and the honkeytonk feel of it all. I kinda wish all their songs sounded a bit more like the one they made up on the spot.

Lowlights for me included the two drawn out jams: Goodnight Rose and Off Broadway, tunes from 2007's forgettable Easy Tiger (although "Off Broadway" is really a Suicide Handbook relic). Both songs were stretched out to nearly ten minutes--the whole show was just a shade over an hour and a half, I believe--and neither ever really struck a chord with the audience.

"Come Pick Me Up" was a little polished, but I can't say I wasn't satisfied with it. While it is a bit played out at this point, I'd still call it one of the best songs of the decade and it's a treat to hear it live. "Why Do They Leave" was just as much of a treat.

The show ended rather abruptly after the goofy rocker "Magick". Ryan thanked us all, the band left the stage, and the house lights were up ten seconds later. A few folks noisily vocalized their disappointment, but by and large folks just shrugged and left. That's what I did, anyway. Because those of us who've followed Ryan's career know that this show is about what we should have expected. The setlist was satisfying if a little predictable. The set wasn't as long as we would've liked but I didn't feel shortchanged. And Ryan was in a fine mood, which is often the X-factor that determines what kind of show it'll be.

So there it was and there it went. I will say it was the best Cardinals show I've seen since 2006, and it's sort of the end of an era for me. But I definitely think Ryan goes off and does something else for a while. He's never had the same backing band for so long (even Whiskeytown lasted just a bit longer than the Cardinals have). Ryan has long thrived on change, so let's hope an exciting future awaits the man, and in effect his fans. But seriously, don't mind us.

Exclusive Pictures:

Thursday, March 5, 2009

BPB sings turn of the century tunes

A newly announced project will feature Will "Bonnie 'Prince' Billy" Oldham pairing up with Louisville area musician Cheyenne Mize and releasing a vinyl-only EP of songs that were written between 1873 and 1915, according to Pitchfork. I listened to a few of these tracks that were posted on Karate Body Records' website. This sort of thing is right in BPB's wheelhouse, as his voice has that rustic Appalaichain quality charm that invokes the world in which our grand-grandparents grew up. Both songs are quaint and innocent, entitled "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "Only a Dream".

Certainly they melodies and structures recall a simpler time. Billy and Mize almost sound like a couple in a mountain home, reading off sheet music and figuring out the harmonies as they go. I'd love to hear the full EP, although the vinyl pressing is limited and I surely won't be dropping the cash on it. I'll be looking for this one on the web in the upcoming months.