Monday, June 22, 2009

The Avett Brothers on NPR

The delightful brothers Avett have most of us indie-folky types all excited, since their new album's worth of banjo scrapes, chivalrous lyrics, and purty harmonies is set to say how-do to the music world this fall. And make no mistake, the buzz is palpable. I and Love and You is their first major label debut (Rick Rubin produced, no less) and it's primed to jet this little act from concord North Carolina into the stratosphere. The Paste coverboys played a set for NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series, and boy oh boy is it good. Granted, the best of the three songs played ("Down With The Shine") is, apparently, not even on the album. But despite that, the outlook for I&L&Y is promising. I'll be catching the Avett's twice this summer, and you can color me giddy for both.

Here's the link to the Avett's performance.

And yes, George Clooney is there too. Look out, ladies.

UPDATE: I'm a bad fan. "Belladonna" was on Gleam II, which I have but am apparently not familiar enough with. So only "Laundry Room" is on the new album.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On Wilco, the new album, prior and beyond

Since I've been following the band, Wilco has always been self-aware. I've never been to a Wilco show where Jeff Tweedy didn't namecheck the band. We have The Wilco Book, The Wilco Store, Wilco toys; and now "Wilco (the Song)" that kicks off Wilco (The Album). Early risers can snag Wilco (The Shirt) with a preorder.

But how could Jeff and the boys not be embrace the hell out of it all? For better of for worse, the Wilco story is the kind of thing that we Americans love; truly, the band's history could not have been more dramatically plotted by a team of Hollywood scribes. Come on, you know the words! Deep breath: They rose from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo and struggled in the shadows of Son Volt, before releasing a string of critically acclaimed albums, including their flagship effort which was denied by their label, leading to the dissolution of their relationship with said label, and and ensuing release with a different subsidiary label from the same umbrella corporation, followed by the dismissal of core member Jay Bennett, who seemed to be a cornerstone in a famously liquid lineup, and finally the entry of Tweedy into rehab prior to the release of A Ghost Is Born in 2004.

/gasp for air

Since then its been hunky dory. Aside from the tragic passing of Jay Bennett last month, which extinguishes any possibility of a reunion of his and Tweedy's talents, it's been smooth sailing for the indie megastars in recent years. The stability of their lineup (this current sextet is the longest running of any of the band's rosters) has allowed the boys to absorb legions of fans who were attracted by this Wilco lore. And now they're rapidly checking off big-ticket rites of passage: Performances on SNL and The Colbert Report; booking the who's-who of indie acts for openers; themselves opening for the Stones; first pitch duties at Wrigley; rubbing elbows with Obama; Volkswagen campaigns, and the list goes on. It has all the markings of a non-radio band who earned it the hard way. Who could argue they didn't?

But Wilco is not those Rolling Stones they opened for; that is, they aren't a novelty act with a slate of uninspired releases who depend on their own notoriety to get asses in seats. No, Wilco is a viable creative entity; minds still well-respected by the music world. Still, it does seem that as the seas have calmed around the band, gone are the angst and paranoia that characterized Tweedy's output. And this isn't surprising. I think he's fully realized his role as husband, father, and damned happy guy. I should note that I don't believe this has compromised his abilities; not in the slightest. I think the argument that stable minds make shitty music is rubbish. Look at Tom Waits, who is similarly ensconced in wife-and-kids family life and has long separated himself from his vices. The guy has released some of his most compelling work over the past decade (his fourth making music.)

But While Tom Waits draws his brilliance from--how should I put this--being really fucking weird, Jeff's appeal has always been his vulnerability. His tired delivery, his penchant for disturbing imagery and melody, that sort of thing. He always seemed to be the non-rock star; the short, homely everyman who expressed himself through this spectrum that made all his music so goddamn relatable to us confused, Gen-Y and beyond twenty somethings. "It makes no difference to me/if they cry all over overseas/cause it's hot in the poor places tonight/I'm not going outside." Staggering, pitiful, and brilliant; Tweedy--and indeed Wilco at their best was absolutely peerless.

When Sky Blue Sky came along in 2007, it was actually the first Wilco album release I was cognizant of, besides 2006's fantastic live 2-discer, Kicking Television. I embraced the band right around the release of A Ghost Is Born in mid to late 2004, but this was the first time I could get giddy for the first listen and the ensuing absorption period. And while it has aged surprisingly well, it has never affected me like its predecessors. While there were some classically Wilcoesque tracks ("You Are My Face," "Side With the Seeds," "Impossible Germany"), I found much of it to be overly simplistic ("What Light," "Either Way"). And, forgive me, but Jeff's ode to domestic drudgery, "Hate It Here," is a surefire skipper for me.

But I counted myself among the satisfied (it was still a top 10 album for me that year), and considered the barebones approach (rather ironically) an experiment for the band. Sure enough, the blogosphere and beyond was all atwitter when Tweedy announced that Wilco's newest effort would be a return to the studio-heavy sound of YHF and AGIB. When an 'advanced copy' was made available to me, I chose not to scrutinize. A simple run-through while making breakfast was all I allowed myself. The next day I played it through again, ironically while engaging in domestic drudgery... It wasn't until recently that I sat down with headphones, and listened through uninterrupted. And here we are.

My initial thought is that Wilco (The Album) is essentially a microcosm of the band. Thoughtful at times, panicked at others; poignant, corny, uplifting, just downright silly. This is not particularly an asset. I don't feel like the album has an overarching theme, although admittedly I haven't picked it apart lyrically quite yet. I think all reviews are inherently unfair to some degree; it's why I don't really do many of them on this site. I've known reviewers to only partially listen to albums before throwing together a full review. And even if they do give it a few spins, a week or a month is hardly enough time with an album, in my opinion, to come to a confident conclusion. So maybe I'll come back later this year with a full-on review; maybe I won't. But for now, some stray thoughts:

  • I was initially deflated when I read that "Wilco (the Song)" would be the opening track. I figured it was a one-off novelty tune for their appearance on Colbert. But it's actually damn good, and it reminds me a bit of Summerteeth opener "Can't Stand It," thanks in no small part to the use of church bells.
  • Tweedy's vocals are, like on Sky Blue Sky, farther forward in the mix sung in a higher register than in his earlier years. I'm not particularly sold on this...I miss the mumbled melancholy of "Ashes of American Flags" and "Via Chicago".
  • "Bull Black Nova" is sinister, repetitive, rough around the edges--all qualities Wilco has used in their favor in the past ("Poor Places," "Spiders (Kidsmoke"). Throw this one in there too, it's a winner.
  • Tweedy's duet with Feist on "You and I" seems like a squandered opportunity to do something really cool with one of the most talented female voices around. Instead they basically went the Kid Rock/Sheryl Crowe route, except because they (Tweedy and Feist) are actually likable musicians, it's actually a pretty enough folk song.
  • Any George Harrison fan will recognize that "You Never Know" owes a lot to Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," a song itself infamous for too closely resembling the Motown song "He's So Fine." But Nels Cline's slide riff is an exact replication of the one from Harrison's hit, which confirms my suspicion that they were paying homage to the classic tune.
  • Overall, Tweedy's lyrical display is much more impressive than that on Sky Blue Sky. Aside from a few bad eggs, a welcomed return to form.
  • "Sonny Feeling" is probably this album's "Hate It Here." It's obnoxiously upbeat in my opinion, and the Hammond organ hits are very irritating. Pat Sansone and Nels Cline, who I would defend to the death normally, both come off as overeager on the album, jockeying for territory all too often.

It may seem like I'm not giving Wilco (The Album) much credit. In truth, I do enjoy the album. Apropos of the title, it's exactly what Wilco has become. Well-manicured, a bit safe, kinda goofy, but certainly not succumbing to any greater mainstream formulas, for the most part. They're still capable of packing a very hearty punch, on par with anyone creating music today. My beef with this record is that it's almost too scattershot. There doesn't seem to be an atmosphere, a musical color scheme that's adhered to throughout. But, as I said, writing it off (or writing would be laughably premature at this juncture.

While Wilco is still indomitable in the live arena, it seems as though their prime was that stretch of the Jay Bennett era and on into A Ghost Is Born -- an important inclusion, since it's grounds for the argument that they could deliver without the late genius' masterstroke. And don't forget the Mermaid Avenue albums, which served as further proof (as if it were necessary) of what Wilco was capable of. I hesitate to say that Wilco is in decline; I just have too much faith in their judgment, musical and otherwise. Perhaps it's all a part of Jeff Tweedy's greater vision that his band eases into middle age, nurturing its new broader fanbase with music that is reflective of Tweedy's willingness to finally embrace them. Meanwhile, they don't forget about those of us (and I barely include myself here) who remember the old days. They throw us a bone by slaying live, again and again. And even now, as I ready this for posting, I feel the urge to throw the album on again. Always infectious, those boys from Chicago.

Remember: Wilco will love you, baby.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Oberst, Ward and James to release album... probable tracklist included!

The long-rumored collab between Bright Eyes' wunderkind Conor Oberst, sleepy crooner M. Ward, and head Morning Jacketeer Jim James is now a reality. And there was much rejoicing among those shaggy haired snap-shirted types. Aptly titled Monsters of Folk, here's the probable tracklist:

  1. Indie Cash-In (James, Ward, Oberst)
  2. Shet (Oberst)
  3. What's Ben Gibbard Got (That I Don't) (Ward)
  4. Ha Ha, Conor Can't Grow a Beard (James)
  5. Despair (Oberst)
  6. Mauve Rain (James)
  7. No, I'm Singing Lead On This One (James, Oberst)
  8. Shoulda Just Been Us (James, Ward)
  9. Flecks of Emo on an Americana Sky (Oberst)
  10. Unnecessarily Electronic (James)
  11. The Ballad of Jim Fell Asleep (Ward, Oberst)
  12. Dusty Vintage Rag #368 (Ward)
  13. Awkward 3 Part Harmony Finale Song (James, Ward, Oberst)

(for the real tracklist, look here)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Not Ready For Prime Stage Players: Open mics

Ah, the open mic. As a passively active musician who really only plays gigs when they're offered to me, sometimes I scratch that performance itch by resorting to one of these esoteric soirees. An open mic is a delicate habitat; without any one of these key roleplayers I mention below, there'd be a palpable imbalance and perhaps the atmosphere would struggle to thrive. But alas, it never fails. It's a mishmash of personalities; a room where the emotions like anxiety and false confidence hang like thick fog.

The Emcee

Usually a burned-out musician or poet who never really had a goddamn snowballs chance and claims to be satisfied with the mild (I mean mild) local acclaim that sprouts from the cracks of failure that zag his aging visage. He derives a very false sense of superiority, viewing himself as the alpha-artiste in attendance, when in reality any number of the participants are more qualified or appreciated. His jokes, anecdotes, and poetry garner false praise from those jockeying for an early spot.

Overheard: "Alright, thanks to Alex, give it up. OK, before we move on, just want to remind everyone that there is no outside food allowed in, so don't bring anything over from Breugger's next door."

The Regulars

Always the first to show and the last to leave, the cadre of regulars have developed an abiding sense of relevance and artistic validity based on nothing more than their persistence. Likely frequent several other stops on the open mic circuit throughout the week. Are on first name basis with the emcee and each other, and often dedicate poems or songs to comrades. Will also proudly announce "I'll do this one because Trevor likes it," or "This one is brand new, I wrote it today," with the hopes that his audience will be astounded by his prolific output. In many cases, a certain coterie of readers might assume ridiculous monikers.

Overheard: "This next poem is for Tony Stanza, Morpheus, Big Rudyard, Shade, Copernicus Lite, and the rest of the open mic crew."

The Self-Deprecating Praise-Fisherman:

A dumpy, skittish weirdo who'd prefer a thorough cavity search to making eye contact with anyone while performing. Will waste no time in gutting the expectations of his audience. "I really suck, but I'm gonna play anyway," he'll chuckle with a quiver. "This poem really sucks but I don't care." He will then, as announced, read a horrid poem, or play an insufferable song. The audience will clap politely, believing his work is every bit as terrible as his preface suggested. Here's the thing though: He doesn't really think his stuff sucks. Rather, he's making a plea for ego-padding praise; for folks to say "Dude I don't know why you say you suck, you're really good!" But make no mistake; he sucks. The only person who'll say otherwise is the overanalyzer (see below).

Overheard: "Oh man, hang on I messed up. Lemme start over. Crap."

The Falsely Confident Suck:

Antithesis of the praise-fisherman, except for the part where they suck. Often a Regular, he'll hop up to the stage and ditch the formalities, setting right into his newest mindspew. He assumes his work is flawless and will often dole out unsolicited constructive criticism. Considers himself somewhat of a celebrity; conveys this by wearing a driver's cap. Lacks the endearing qualities of the praise-fisherman, therefore invokes no pity from his audience. Will receive heavy applause from regulars and a hearty affirmation from the emcee ("Man, we never get tired of this guy!")

Overheard: You know a lotta people can't believe I'm self-taught, but it just kinda comes naturally to me. My uncle played piano, so.

The Plugger:

Usually a decent artist, the Plugger suffers through the acts preceding his own. When his number is finally called, he'll deliver a few competent, enjoyable pieces and then announce his upcoming gigs. "Thanks guys. I'll be playing at Grinders on Tuesday night and then a full set here on Saturday." The Plugger is loathed by most, not only for his ability, but for shedding a comparative light on the shoddy performers preceding and following. Will usually draw sneers for leaving after he plays. He's suffered enough.

Overheard: "My girlfriend Paisely--raise your hand, babe--she's got a few of my CDs back there, or you can find me on iTunes."

The Angry Goth Poet:

Considers herself a credible poet, but in all reality doesn't fucking get poetry. Doesn't read it or study it, beyond her other goth friends' Myspace blogs. Appearance indicates that she's spent considerable time time dolling up, yet somehow plays nonchalant. Occasionally uses laughable stage name, like "Shade" or "Medusa" or something. Subtlety is not a quality embraced by the goth. Her poetry reads like a laundry list of first-person observations, rather than a cohesive work. "There is darkness all around me. I shiver in the cold. I am alone." Pretty damn funny when the milk steamer goes off while she's bemoaning her internal struggles. Coveted sexually by the Regulars.

Overheard: "I mean, I guess I'm just weird, but I would take Robert Smith over Bon Jovi or whoever any day."

Creepy Old Guy Poet:

Also usually a regular, broods quietly in the corner until he's beckoned stageward. Reads wistful poems that net some credibility due to his grizzled delivery. He considers himself sagelike; wizened; like a sort of father figure to the others, especially the emcee. In reality, just an aged Regular. His poetry is more introspective and less whiny than his younger comrades, and will endear himself to the females in the audience because girls love a 'cute old man'. But don't be fooled; he would do awful things to them.

Overheard: "When the loping willows caressed the crystal waters/so then did my sweet Beatrice le--" (interrupted by barrista's Nokia ringtone)

The Overly Analytical Mystic Lady:

Bio: A local patron of the arts who can't afford symphony tickets, she portrays herself as a Stevie Nicks type through her long hair, faded sundress, and bead necklace--not to mention her proclivity to meditate during readings and to nod thoughtfully or coo "oh yeah" at an especially affecting line. She'll never read her own poetry or play music, and she'll always bite when the praise-fisherman is on stage. "You're marvelous," she'll proudly suggest, indifferent to the utter disinterest clouding the room.

Overheard: "Bravo! Waiter, another cup of wheatgrass and a vegan scone, please."

The Frustrated Grad Student:

Bio: Macbook in tow, has repaired to the coffee shop in order to make headway on his dissertation in someplace other than his studio apartment. Upon entering, sees the sign-up sheet and thinks "Ah goddammit, I forgot Tuesdays were open mic. Whatever, I'm already here." Activities include temple-rubbing, pencil gnawing, resenting of regulars, and an occasional break to watch someone play "Knives Out." Inwardly thinking, "Maybe I should get up there and slay with some of my stuff," before deciding not to stoop to that level.

Overheard: "Goddamnit, what's another word for 'ephemeral'? I can't concentrate with this guy butchering 'Flagpole Sitta'."


And then there's me, drinking it all in. Now despite the ridicule, I'm glad these exist for folks like myself and those others who don't take themselves overly seriously, but really just get a kick out of playing for a crowd now and again. It always makes for a good time, while providing a smattering of awkward moments courtesy of the aforementioned characters. And one more at the expense of myself, when I'm sneaking out during the act that followed my own.

Short post about long albums

A thought on Conor Oberst's new album, Outer South. Why do bands/artists weigh albums down with something like 16 songs? This inevitably results in at least 4 or 5 throwaways, unless its a double album. And even then sometimes (cough cough, Cold Roses, cough cough...) Surely there are exceptions to the rule, but I can think of at least 5 albums I own that are bloated beyond necessity. Take last year's Drive-By Truckers effort, Brighter Than Creation's Dark. The album was nineteen songs long...nineteen! And not even a double. Had they scrapped a few of the more repetitive tracks and done away with all of Shonna Tucker's contributions not named "I'm Sorry Huston", they might have had the best Truckers album to date. But alas, those spare tracks make a start-to-finish spin of BTCD a rather laborious task.

Anyway, Conor's new album is decidedly so-so. It doesn't compare to last year's eponymous effort. You might note the song "Eagle On a Pole", which shares a title with a song on the last album. Apparently the title is taken from an overheard phrase that prompted both Oberst and Mystic Valley drummer Jason Boesel to write a song around it. As expected, Oberst's, which appears on last year's record, is about a hundred times better, but Boesel gave it a nice shot.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More musical lookalikes...

Today's musical lookalike feature is a timely homage to Conan O'brien, mostly because I'm copping his 'If They Mated' segment. Today's focus: Hold Steady licksmith Tad Kubler, who doesn't like Radiohead because they have NO IDEA WHAT THEY'RE DOING and make music by pushing buttons...BUTTONS! Haha, oh Tad. I imagine he has a nightmare that involes him running through an icy hellscape, similar to this, while this chases him and "Idioteque" plays.

So here's Tad:

Tad, who by all accounts is a super guy, is also more than likely the result of a federally granted gene-splicing project. The Godless progeny of character actor Alan Tudyk, whose expansive credits include Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Steve the Pirate), Arrested Development, 3:10 to Yuma, et al; and of Hollywood ne'erdowell and smallscreen terrorist thwart-artist Kiefer Sutherland.

Alan + Kiefer

I'd imagine lead singer Craig Finn will be one of our next targets. And Franz Nicolay can't be far off either.