Friday, July 31, 2009

The Tube Amp: July

Welcome to The Tube Amp, a new feature here at HSW. It'll feature a highlighted youtube video of especially delectable musical quality, and a blow-by-blow recount of my especially enjoyable moments from said video. The first installment is the great dobro player Jerry Douglas, playing "A Tribute to Peader O'Donnell." Douglas is, among other things, a player in Allison Krauss' Union Station band, and while I'm not particularly a follower of her work, she is one of the few mainstream country artists out there with any credibility in reputable music circles. However, she's not involved in this lovely instrumental piece. Here we go:

:02 - Lovely intro run

:40 - Mm, candles

:45 - Man, that minor chord will gut you everytime.

: 53 - Nice little lick, J-Doug.

1:23 - Watch this multi-note slide...killer.

1:33 - Zeppelinesque chord...must be in DADGAD tuning.

1:57 - Something about dobro slides -- when applied properly, they're quite stunning.

2:25 - Reprises the melody on the high strings, to a gorgeous end.

2:58 - Breaks into "Monkey Let the Hogs Out", so says the youtube info. Here's some good old high-speed bluegrass fingerpicking that'll make you wanna jump in with a thighslap solo.

3:43 - Harmonics, FTW!

Each time I watch this video, I have to fight the earch to browse eBay for an old dobro. And each time, I'm a little less sure of why I fight that urge. Beautiful instrument, especially when handled with such expertise, a la the great Jerry Douglas.

Thus concludes the innaugural installment of The Tube Amp. Will try to do this at the tail end of each month, but it may become more frequent.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Another new poll! (look right)

That old poll was festering over there for a month or so, decomposing, so I figured it was time to throw a new one together. Sure, we're only 7/12 of the way through the year, but there's no reason we can't choose favorite songs yet.

How will this one pan out: Will Wilco run away with another poll? Will Grizzly Bear steal it away? You decide. Feel free to post alternate answers in the comments section here, and I believe I allowed multiple answers on this one.

Have at it! Incidentally, if you haven't heard any of the songs, here's an amazing tool for listening to all of them.

A little Bitte Orca: The Dirty Projectors and the 90s.

Prior to this summer, The Dirty Projectors have never been anything more than a name. I'd file them under "esoteric indie band" whose great accomplishment might be to one day license a song to Apple for an i(whatever) commercial. The band's been on the scene for the better part of this decade, and have released music at a brisk pace, and yet they'd never really been on my radar.

As usual, it took a universally appreciated album for my interest to be piqued, so when I noticed the buzz surrounding Bitte Orca, I deemed it worthy of further examination. To be sure, it isn't a sound with which I usually align my tastes. The instrumentation is very complex and the whole thing is washed over in treble. The timing and delivery throughout seems sort of robotic. Instruments, voices, and beats flare up and disappear intermittently like indicator lights on some giant mainframe.

But the album isn't cold or distant, as my digital metaphors might suggest--on the contrary, it's a very comforting album. It continuously references mid-90s R&B (most irrefutably on single "Stillness Is the Move") and perhaps that's why today's 20-somethings might embrace a sound. It would seem that the cycle of influence has rotated to display the likes TLC, Boys II Men, and En Vogue, the music that today's indie popsters likely absorbed in their formative/come-of-age years. While I didn't own or listen at length to Crazy Sexy Cool, it certainly invokes a simpler time and place for me: 10 years old, living on a military base in northern California, bike rides through crisp eucalyptus-scented air, memorizing finishing moves on Mortal Kombat. That's what TLC reminds me of; go figure.

Get over here.

Perhaps Bitte Orca provides a lens through which I can view those years, relative to where my tastes lie now. Even in the bizarre video for "Stillness Is the Move", there exists an underlying atmosphere of the referenced era, via the choreography and the camera work. It's all just been transposed; viewed through a late-oughts Brooklyn indie spectrum. And that statement could be applied to most of the record.

Musically, the band's strengths lie in arrangements and vocals. Dave Longstreth's is a supremely talented vocalist with a knack for seamlessly whipping a precise falsetto into a throaty blurt. And much praise must be doled to Angel Deradoorian, who's vocals would impress any 90s hip hop princess. The instrumental complexity is a challenge at times, admittedly. But overall, it's an exciting album and one that I wouldn't have pegged as personally satisfying upon first listen. No surprise that the young journalists of my generation are championing Bitte Orca as an album of the year candidate.

Here's the video for "Stillness Is the Move":

Sunday, July 26, 2009

July 25, 2009: The Avett Brothers

Dear Myrtle Beach,



Showed up at the show after the Avetts had taken the stage, due to the maddening trifecta of traffic, tourists and terrible drivers Myrtle Beach so generously offers. So by the time we arrived at the sold-out House of Blues, the Avetts were already at least one song in. Almost immediately thereafter, they started into "Shame" from Emotionalism, which almost seemed directed toward us late-comers. The floor absolutely packed, we made our way upstairs to wrap-around balcony and searched for a clean view of the boys from upper Carolina. After nomadically wandering the premises for a few songs, we lucked out when a couple made an early departure from their railing-spot, which were glad to keep warm til they came back (they never did.)

So the show! As expected, the Avetts had this crowd absolutely frenzied. Don't ever tell me you need pounding drums and electric guitar to breed energy. These guys had a thousand people (estimating here) foaming from a Beatles-esque mania, howling through every song (even the slow ones, and it worked.) Purists might argue the Avetts are best suited for small rock clubs, and I would have been inclined to agree before last night's show. They expertly expanded the reach of their songs, bolstering their relentless strums and screeches with well-placed augmentations and full-band syncopations gave the show more of an organized-chaos feel than a usual Avetts set.

Song of the night for me was "Paranoia in B-Flat Major", although most of the Emotionalism stuff has aged nicely. New tunes were promising, including the title track from the forthcoming I and Love and You. There was a distinct lack of Four Thieves Gone material, although they very well might have opened with "Talk on Indolence". It was a joy to watch the band, as always. Older brother Scott Avett tore at his banjo, lept up on his bass drum headbanged at a whiplashy pace. The lankier Seth gallopped or bounced in place as a strummed and yelped, and occassionally manned the digital piano that sat stage left. The stage was bright and colorful, a marked difference from the last time I saw them, when both brothers wore black and the large Emotionalism backdrop only complemented them. But last night the stage was vivacious, as was the band of course, and it spread through the crowd like swine flu.

It was a nice experience, if only lacking the enjoyable build-up that comes with anticipating the band taking the stage. No, we sat in the hell-hole of Myrtle Beach while, surely, the capacity crowd chanted "Avetts! Avetts!" Rest assured, I will be there plenty early when I see them in Charleston come September. I'll come back with a more comprehensive report at that point.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


  • The Flaming Lips' new song, "Trembling Silver Hands", is streaming on their myspace page. Might be too early to say 'return-to-form', but it's an exciting first taste of what is surely to be an intriguing album.
  • The Avett Brothers play the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach this weekend; and my ticket goes to waste due to a previously scheduled work retreat. The sound you hear is my head pounding repeatedly against my keyboard. UPDATE!: Work outing was shortened due to complaints...made it to the show, and in case you're reading this blog backwards, look up and see a review.
  • For the second summer in a row, the Red House Painters' Ocean Beach is leading the way in spin volume. A 90s alt-rock/slowcore masterpiece, and the first of the RHPs more refined era, the album gets a firm endorsement from us.
  • Apparently the National will have a new album out in early 2010. Already holding a spot for it in my Best of 2010 list.
  • My favorite line from the Beck/Tom Waits interview posted on the former's website: "Where does this "Best" thing come from? Is that human? Is that American? Is it all over the world? Everyone wants the best eye surgeon, the best babysitter, the best vehicle, the best prosthetic arm, and the best hat. There's also the worst of all those things available and they're doing rather well. (Laughs.) Denny's is doing great. It's always crowded. You have to wait for a table." Even if you're not a Waits fan, all his interviews offer fascinating observations and streams of thought.
  • As much of a Jack White fan I am when he's within the confines of the White Stripes, I've never been able to glom onto his myriad side projects. Looking forward to a new Stripes album next year.
  • Andrew Bird and St. Vincent will visit the Music Farm here in Charleston come october. Bird will be a treat, although some recent boning-up on St. Vincent proved somewhat disappointing.
  • The first Monsters of Folk track was posted over at their website. Sounds pretty good I guess, but at this point I'm stillmore interested in Jim "Yim Yames" James' upcoming George Harrison tribute.
  • Heavy rotation has been given to the Replacement's Please to Meet Me in recent weeks. I've always been more into Tim, but PTMM has finally clicked.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A rational response to a comment

This seems a bit low, using my own larger forum to respond to a commenter, but I feel it's warranted. I just thought the argument he or she made in their rather curt response to my Cass McCombs post was worthy of further discussion. So here goes:

The comment:

"Anyone who thinks Ryan Adams doesn't have his own sound isn't listening." -- Sandy

The response:

Hi Sandy,

I suppose it's fair to say I'm being a little harsh on Ryan. But, contrary to what you're saying, I think the problem is I've listened too much. Over the years I've worn out every album, every unreleased session, scores of live shows, and even a few tracks that I shouldn't even be talking about. So, yes, I'm listening.

But I think you also have to grant me that Ryan often wears his influences on his sleeve. Particular RA tracks are, arguably of course, facsimiles of certain songs by artists he's publicly named as influencers. Most notably, "Afraid Not Scared" bears a striking resemblance to Radiohead's "How to Disappear Completely". "Tina Toledo's Streetwalkin' Blues" is a Stones' hybrid, half "Brown Sugar" and half "Can't You Hear Me Knockin". And it doesn't need mentioning that his Grateful Dead obsession certainly shines through in his setlists and albums alike. Finally, I remember a quote of his in which, to paraphrase, he said he wanted Gold to sound like listening to a 70s music station, cycling through various genres.

I could make scores of other arguments, but these are some pretty overt examples. I still stand firmly behind Mr. Adams' talent, and I'd be lying if I said he didn't write a handful of my favorite albums. But the more I explore the many, many branches of his flowchart of influence, I realize that he often sacrifices his own creativity for an imitative style. And he usually does it very well, but doesn't exactly challenge the listener. And it's almost universally acknowledged that his last two albums have been exhibited a marked regression. I guess my question to you, or anyone who takes issue with my assertion, would be, "Have you listened at length to these artists who influence Ryan's work?" If the answer is yes, and you still feel that his "sound" is more his own vision than that of his influences, I'd be curious to hear your reasons.

This would be an interesting discussion to ignite; which songs best display Ryan Adams at his purest, as a composite of his influences instead of a reflection of them. Magnolia Mountain? Dear Chicago? Perhaps the unreleased Suicide Handbook or Destroyer albums? Look for an upcoming post on this topic.

In totality, Cass McCombs is a poor substitute for Ryan Adams. He's just taken some steps in his songwriting on Catacombs that I always wished Ryan had. So rest assured I've been listening very closely to Ryan, and I'll continue to do so. But when I hear an album that doesn't seem like it's been filtered through the artist's record collection, chances are I'm not listening to Ryan.

I welcome your rebuttal, although chances are you stumbled across the post and are somewhere deep within the vast forest of interwebs. But if not, have at it! I'll even post it for you.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

We have a new contender for album of the year

Perhaps you read HSW's third annual "Midway Through the Year Awards" and thought, "Surely no albums can displace this stellar top five." It is my duty to inform you, then, that the list is already in danger of being obsolete, as a new album (one which was perhaps a distant blip on my radar, or not even visible at all) has invaded my earspace. The album is Catacombs by indie-crooner Cass McCombs. File it under "highly recommended" the post title indicates, it's a surefire album of the year contender.

My first run-in with McCombs came somewhat unwittingly in January of last year, right here in Charleston. He was on tour with Band of Horses, and his opening set wasn't exactly mindblowing. McCombs doesn't rage, nor does his music. It demands an appreciative ear, one receptive to subtleties and appreciative of minimalism. And BOH's home crowd wasn't exactly keen to remain hushed while the opener played his own brand of spacey indie-folk. He left stage without much fanfare if I recall, and then the Horses came out and tore through a brilliant set.

While I wasn't inspired to rush out and grab a McCombs record, my subconscious has conjured moments of his performance from time to time, so he made enough of an impression for me to perk up when his name appeared on blogs. Hence the reason I stumbled across his new record.

I first heard "You Saved My Life", the third track off Catacombs, via a video posted on Pitchfork or something. I was quite taken aback by the slow-burning beauty of the song, a delicate waltz with twinkling electric piano and streamers of pedal-steel texturing one of the more inspired 3/4-time compositions I've heard since Radiohead's "Nude" or Iron and Wine's "Flightless Bird, American Mouth."

If I had to make one umbrella description of the album, I'd say this: Cass McCombs made the album that I always wanted Ryan Adams to make. Had Ryan been less concerned with mimicking his idols and concentrated on shaping his own sound, I feel he could have crafted such a sincere, distinctive record. But even his best efforts are chock full of overt nods to the Stones, the Replacements, the Smiths, Gram Parsons, and the list goes on. And as of late, he's phoned in two records that mimic watered-down Grateful Dead or Neil Young.

Until Ryan can get his act together (if he ever can), Cass will fill the void nicely. The two actually have some commonalities: Both are stick-thin, shaggy-headed man-children; both have gifted singing voices that carry more emotion than they let it on initially. But Cass lacks that outward obnoxiousness and arrogance that turns so many off to Ryan's music.

Catacombs' strong point is its simplicity. "You Saved My Life" is by far the most produced and instrument-heavy track on the album. Most of the others play with the open air, and enlist some quirky drum and percussion accompaniment that almost seem like an afterthought. I think the songs are best distinguished by McCombs' airy croon, and some eye-raising/ear-snagging lyrics that essentially addict the listener, eliciting repeat spins. But somehow, there's still a faint summery luminescence that gives the album a kind of intimate warmth and charm, most present in the sleepy yet uplifting "Harmonia" and "Jonsey Boy".

Other standout tracks include the bizarrely-themed "My Sister My Spouse", which truly highlights McCombs' knack for crafting tricky vocal melodies and carrying them out with ease. A handful of songs, including folksy album closer "One Way to Go" and the slightly unnerving "Lionkiller Got Married", sound like White Album Beatles, a notion that isn't at all damaged by the fact that McCombs, vocally, could pass for John Lennon (minus the Liverpool.) A few others, most noticeably "Eavesdropping On the Competition", embrace early Red House Painters slowcore, for which McCombs' sleepy delivery is quite suitable.

Also in true RHPs fashion, McCombs doesn't shortchange you on song length. Only the closer clocks in under three minutes, and only two out of the eleven tracks make it under four minutes. Most are five or longer. But like any great album, it demands patience and attention to detail to truly flourish. I look forward to wearing out the grooves on this one, and delving into McCombs back catalog a bit. Meanwhile, here are the videos for two of the tracks..."You Saved My Life" and then trippy doo-wop opener "Dream Come True Girl"

You Saved My Life

Dream Come True Girl

Poll Results 2: Your most anticipated 09 release

Granted, the field wasn't exactly sprawling, and really relegated to a few of my personal faves. But predictably, Wilco ran away with it, garnering 75% of the votes (21). Neko Case ranked second, nabbing 4 votes, followed by Bonnie "Prince" Billy, who had two noble fans get behind the 'stache. Finally, the Decemberists only received one vote. But if it's any consolation, they released the best album in my opinion.

New poll up soon...thanks for participatin'

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Midway Through the Year 09 Music Awards

It boggles the mind that this blog has lasted three summers (starting in spring of 07), and is thereby affording me the pleasure of drawing up my third Midway Through the Year Awards. Without further ado!

Albums of the Year

5. The Decemberists - Hazards of Love

...and gaining. I was a bit cold towards this album at first. The D's strength, to me, was an album's worth of quirky tales, and the lack of irony is what made it acceptable. Despite the costumes and decorative lyrics, the band's MO wasn't to fill some sort of antique-indie niche. It was to deliver a compendium of short stories based on a common theme. The Crane Wife flirted with an overarching concept, but even it only boasted two songs that related directly to the album. The Hazards of Love, in the age of iTunes and unabashed song-shuffling, is a bold release. It is a linear movement of operatic levels, but with just enough attention to hooks and other pop touchstones to make it sink in with this attention span-challenged generation. And album closer "Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)" is one of the most staggering ballads Meloy has to his name. And for a guy who's written "I Was Meant for the Stage," "The Engine Driver," and "Grace Cathedral Hill," that's high praise.

4. Mark Kozelek - Lost Verses Live

Kozelek has never shied away from live releases. With his own Caldo Verde label enabling, he's released no less than five offerings of his live work. And while it seems redundant at times, this most recent collection is, perhaps, the most enjoyable (although the version of "Cruiser" on Little Drummer Boy is the finest live Kozelek moment on record.) Kozelek's voice has become one of the wonders of the modern music world; gone are the days of his Red House Painter's delivery, when he pushed out his lyrics with a touch of angst and a manner of overannunciation characterizes alt-90s singers. He's embraced a delicate and solemn richness that balances pitch-perfection with an almost unfair amount of emotion. A fine example of this would be one of the two covers the album offers; Steven Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns." The version will make your chest tight and your throat grow a lump. But the album also shows, via mid-song banter, a side of Kozelek that Little Drummer Boy glossed over; a playfulness that we're glad exists in a man who's written some pretty dark stuff.

3. Red Cortez - Hands to the Wall EP

Followers will recall my recent post about these boys from California who opened for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on Isle of Palms. Happy to report that the replay value of their EP is absolutely stellar. Each song is oozing with energy and textured by uncomplex instrumentation that's befitting of barebones rockers like Red Cortez. Stoic opener "In the Fall" is satisfying and melodic, and paves the way for a slate of more to-the-point rockers. "Fell On the Floor" is a pulsing, unstoppable romp that, one day, will have a thousand hipsters pogoing at the Bowery. By the time affirming closer "All the Difference" reaches its end, I find myself pounding my fists and chanting "Bring on the LP!" In a planet full of hundreds of thousands of bands striving for success, Red Cortez has already positioned themselves as a contender.

2. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

By the time I first spun Veckatimest, it'd been made explicitly clear to me that this was a brilliant album. I guess my real surprise came when I realized just how brilliant it was. It's an album that demands attention and patience, an album that slowly reveals itself in repeat listens. It's almost cinematic the way it plays with silence and atmosphere, and it suggests light and dark through both word and sound. "Two Weeks" is one of the more perfect indie-pop singles I've ever heard, nicely built around a standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, and washed in Brian Wilson's harmonic influence. "All We Ask" is a personal favorite, with a chorus that rises out of the song like a glowing mist. Veckatimest closes with a suite of 3 incredible songs, the massive "While You Wait for the Others", the impassioned "I Live With You", and finally "Foreground," featuring a foreboding and immaculate vocal performance by Ed Droste that cradles the soon-to-be classic to rest.

1. Felice Brothers - Yonder is the Clock

From what I can tell, this is the Brothers' 4th proper release (since 2006!), and while I haven't heard the first, I will comfortably assert that only now have they reached their stride. It's not that Yonder Is the Clock is all that different from their other stuff -- it's still old-timey folk rock that's being sung by people born during the Reagan administration. But something has clearly clicked; perhaps a brand of confidence they've developed over a few years of unapologetic emulation, or a growing awareness of contemporary trends; or perhaps they, like the Decemberists, have ditched the irony. They're ignoring the fact that 20-somethings singing about Depression Era antics seems a bit silly. There's no time to be vulnerable when you're taking a risk like that. Perhaps that's the secret buried within rolling opener "The Big Surprise," one of their most impressive all-around compositions as a band. Ian Felice's voice, more gravelly and less Dylanesque than ever, is where it needs to be; neither mimicking his influences nor paving any awkward new territory. He tears through "Penn Station" and "Run Chicken Run", and downshifts for stirring ballads "Katie Dear" and "Boy From Lawrence County." 2008's self-titled effort allowed them 16 songs worth of folk cliche banner-waving, they've managed to shelve their derivative tendencies, stripping themselves of that cover-band-plays-originals label, and are focusing their efforts developing and refining that yesterday vis-a-vis today style; something they did immensely well on Yonder Is the Clock.

Honorable Mentions: Iron and Wine, Around the Well; Neko Case, Middle Cyclone; Andrew Bird, Noble Beast; Akron/Family, Set Em Wild, Set Em Free; Son Volt, American Central Dust

Disappointments of the Year:

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South

Some things that are deflating to me: The success of the sickening exploit-a-thon that is Jon and Kate Plus 8. The thought that I spend 5/7 of my mornings in an office. And finally, when a talented front man who is the lifeblood of a group lets someone else sing/songwrite. This never ends well. It results in fluff and watered-down albums. And sad as it is, another one bites the dust. After last year's unexpectedly incredible solo debut, Conor gave billing to his touring band and stepped away from the mic for a few songs. Ironically, Conor's voice caused my initial hesitation in appreciating Bright Eyes; now, I want it back. His bandmates' voices are absolutely forgettable, one a Dando sound-alike, and the other just a nasally mess. The latter, though, offers the best and worst non-Conor contributions in closer "Snake Hill" and the annoying "Air Mattress", respectively. Conor's material is generally up to par, especially the haunting ballad "White Shoes" that, to me, is Oberst at his best (not unlike "Lenders in the Temple" from last year's release.) Ultimately, I'll go back to this album semi-consistently, but I'll always be pushing the 'next track' button a few times.

Dishonorable Mentions: M. Ward, Hold Time; Wilco, Wilco (The Album). With both of these, it's not so much that they're bad albums, because neither is. But also, neither is an album that fully displays the capabilities of its author(s). Also, A Positive Rage by the Hold Steady; poor sound quality and does little to replicate what is, by all accounts including my own, an incredible live show.

Best Live Experience:

Undoubtedly this is Old Crow Medicine Show with the Felice Brothers. I'll spare you the rehash, but take a look at my review from February. I should also mention that, what with the criterium being "experience," it's hard to top the rush of being in Washington D.C. and stumbling across a free Flaming Lips concert while exploring the National Mall. Something about the spontenaity made it extra special, even if the show wasn't an all-time favorite, musically.

New to George Award:

This section is relegated to artist who didn't have a fresh release in 2009. This year's winner made it in by just a week or so (and shouldn't have made it in, had I written this post on time!) It's King Khan and the Shrines, based solely on their 2007 release What Is?! Prior exposure to King Khan was limited; I'd basically seen him show up on Pitchfork here and there, and watched a Youtube or something. But it was enough for me to invest $5 into a used copy of the album. The return is huge: It's a disc full of garage rock with a soulful sensibility, lathered in psychadelia and a singer who with a voice that sounds like a sore throat in the making. It's like Spoon meets the Hold Steady meets the Temptations meets Velvet Underground meets Timothy Leary. Looking forward to seeking out the rest of King Khan's stuff.

The "Most Likely to Crack the Top 3 Before 2009 Is Over" Award:

This one is a shoo-in. The Avett Brothers are prepping their first major-label release, and early hype points to it being very, very good. The Avett's have always delievered, even if they've mellowed a bit. The one track I've heard from the forthcoming I and Love and You is the title track. It's a lovely affair, somewhat restrained, a little sad, and very much a product of Rick Rubin's production technique. Certainly doesn't sound like the same raccous gang who moaned "Pretty Girl from Feltre." But I have faith in the Avetts, and I know their songwriting and vocal interplay will rule the day. In fact, I could see my album-of-the-year spot turning into a battle of brothers: Felices vs. Avetts. Unless they both get eaten by Grizzly Bear.


Another year, another slate of fine (and not-so-fine) music. For old times sake:

Midway Through the Year 07 Music Awards
Midway Through the Year 08 Music Awards