Friday, February 26, 2010

Whathaveyou


  • Climbing on the new release express is William Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy. His new disc, confidently titled The Wonder Show of the World, will also be attributed to the Cairo Gang. His third album in as many years (fifth if you include a live album and a side project with Brian Harnetty), it'll drop in March.
  • I'd be remiss to overlook Gorillaz, who have a new album coming out in March called Plastic Beach. Really digging the trip-hoppy "Superfast Jellyfish" (hear it on Youtube). Fair warning: The chorus will infect your subconscious.
  • For the first time in a few years, I threw The White Stripes' Get Behind Me Satan into my CD player. Probably the album of theirs I go to the least, but I'm quite enjoying my current revisitation. "Little Ghost" is playful in the same way as "Hotel Yorba". And even though they're pretty much the same song, "The Denial Twist" and "Doorbell" sure are fun.
  • I was engaged in a civil discussion (re: message board throw-down) with some British dude over who was the more bittersweet messenger: the gently-brooding Mark Kozelek or that throaty wankfactory Morrissey. I understand I'm in a scant minority here, but I've always found The Smiths (and Morrissey in particular) to be hyper-maudlin artistes. I'd take Kozelek's unpretentious sincerity any day. Listen to "The Boy With a Thorn In His Side" and compare it to "Drop" by the Red House Painters. I can't imagine thinking the former is a more pure manifestation of sorrow than the latter.
  • Thom Yorke's side project (with Flea on bass) is calling itself Atoms for Peace and will go on a brief major-cities tour in April, wrapping it up at Coachella. After that, he and Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich (also in the band) had better get their asses back to the studio and wrap up the new Radiohead LP!
  • The Decemberists have written some of my favorite songs of the last decade, perhaps none more so than "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" from their debut, Castaways and Cutouts. Despite Colin's complex lyricism, it's a testament to simplicity: The song is basically comprised of two chords. Check it here:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Happy 200



Even casual readers should know by now I'm a firm believer in lavishing praise upon our accomplishments. So congrats to OURSELVES for 200 posts (The Hold Steady announcement made 200). And less than a year after number 100! Granted, this being our 4th calendar year and all, that isn't all that impressive. But consider the following: We're not yet three years old; all contributors work full-time jobs; we make absolutely no money on it; and our average monthly post count is on the rise (we already have more this year than in all of 2007!)

I could go on, but by all accounts, we haven't done so bad! I'd imagine we've exceeded the average blogospheric lifespan by at least fifty or so posts. How many blogs go derelict after a few months? Plenty--I know from experience.

So thanks to all the readers who follow us, have added an RSS feed, or just stop by for a few minutes every month. Even if it's only a few people steadily, I still feel like my efforts are validated with each comment, poll vote, etc. It's a big internet with a lot of resources, so there's no use in losing sleep over a lack of followers/comments/etc. I think we write this blog to catalog our own thoughts and opinions more than anything, and to share them with whoever finds their way in. I get a lot of joy out of writing this blog; if I didn't, I'd quit writing it. Hopefully that joy is reflected in the work.

Thanks again folks! See you at 300...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

HSW Newsflash: New Hold Steady album strengthens May music avalanche



May is going to be a big month. On a personal front, I hit the quarter-century mark. So those of you looking for gift ideas, throw this one on the heap: Take-no-prisoners barroom brawlers The Hold Steady (sans Franz) will release a new album, Heaven Is Whenever, in May. They'll join Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, Josh Ritter, and the National in doing so.

What's most intriguing to me is guitarist Tadd Kubler's description:
This album is sonically more diverse (than past THS albums). And I really believe it exposes new elements of the band that we hinted at on other records but weren't able to fully realize until this one. Rather than just concentrate on changes in instrumentation, we made changes to the song writing process. And this helped everyone to experiment not only with their own instrument and where they should play, but where they shouldn't. This record doesn't feel as dense. It feels more spacial. We weren't trying to get a dozen different ideas on a song

...

One thing we've never really tried was writing in the studio and using the studio itself as an instrument.
By throwing around buzz words and phrases like "experiment", "sonically diverse", and "using the studio itself as an instrument", you'd think Tadd might be reneging on his Radiohead hate. But this could just mean that a few more slow songs turn up. Who knows! What I do know is they better get back to Charleston and soon. Hopefully my tinnitus from the Isbell show will have cleared up by then.

The Hold Steady is back. Get psyched, boys and girls in America!*

*Also applies to boys and girls in other countries.

Tracklist:

01 The Sweet Part of the City
02 Soft in the Center
03 The Weekenders
04 The Smidge [G: This is such a Hold Steady-ish song title]
05 Rock Problems
06 We Can Get Together
07 Hurricane J
08 Barely Breathing
09 Our Whole Lives
10 A Slight Discomfort

At least Canadians Have Killer Indie Bands


Pictured: Lots of effin Candians.

In light of Sunday's Vancouver beatdown, I thought it fitting to highlight an area that Canada has had some inarguable success: Indie rock. Particularly indie-rock mega-groups featuring an almost unfair amount of talent--not unlike the national hockey team, except the bands come out winners.

Of course I'm referring to Broken Social Scene and the New Pornographers, both of whom have new albums set to drop in a few months time--ON THE SAME MF&*%$&*@ING DAY NO LESS! (That day would be May 4, 2010. Also out that day: Josh Ritter's new one and maybe the National. /head explodes)

Both have also released a track from their album. So far, BSS' "World Sick" (download here) is sounding a bit superior to "Your Hands (Together)" (listen here). The former, as you would expect from BSS, washes over you like a tidal wave of shiny rainbows. The New Porno's track kinda sounds like it could soundtrack a montage scene in a Mighty Ducks reboot. Not to say I don't still have high hopes for TNP's Together. But maybe not as high as I do for BSS's Forgiveness Rock Record.

So just how similar are these bands? Let's have a look at what traits the two bands share:
  • Canadian
  • Tons of band members
  • Attractive Talented females who are successful as solo artists (Feist, Neko Case)
  • Both poised to release fifth studio album
Alright, that's all I got. What'd I miss?

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Tube Amp: February

Welcome back to The Tube Amp, which against all odds, is on time this month. Today I give you Whiskeytown, who at this point had two years and one LP under its cracked-leather belt. Stranger's Almanac, set to be released a few months after this performance, would show a more refined side of the band, and would stylistically give way to Ryan Adams' inevitable solo turn. But before then, there was raw, gritty Stones-inspired roots rock:



:03 -- A young Ryan Adams (23 here) sports some impressive chops. Both musical and mutton.

:06 -- "And you know what? You can tell your local newspaperwoman to suck my fuckin' dick." This infamous statement is one of the first of many outbursts that sculpted Ryan Adams notoriously brash reputation; the kind of onstage pomposity that's made him one of the most simultaneously beloved and despised musicians around. Apparently, this journalist had alleged that the band publicly dismissed Uncle Tupelo--not and endearing stance to take in St. Louis. Feeling the need to pander a bit , Ryan fired the insult (the target of which was no doubt in the audience) and clarified the band's stance, before launching into one of Whiskeytown's rowdiest, most Tupelo-esque numbers. Years after going solo, he would take a decidely less political stance at a Chicago gig, improvising a song called "I Am Trying to Bore You to Death", a none too subtle jab at Wilco's song. Tit for tat, a few years later Adams and Tweedy would share a bill at a music festival. During Tweedy's solo set, a fan yelled "Summer of 69!", to which Tweedy responded something along the lines of "Shouldn't you be saving that (for Adams' set)?"

For a time in the mid-2000s, Wilco and Ryan Adams were the standard-bearers for alternative country music, even though neither was particularly embroiled in the genre. Distinct fanbases were borne out of the two, with the Wilco camp dismissing Ryan's music as derivative, and Ryan fans deriding Wilco's as overly pretentious. As a fan of both, I've been scoffed at by each act's followers for my support of the other. But over the past few years, as Adams and Wilco have grown less essential (except the latter's live show), they've been corralled into the old guard together. It's a bittersweet notion, but such is the creative arc I suppose. Maybe it'll allow for more mutual appreciation; a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

:30 -- Lol @ "Fat fuckin' hippy", a response to Phil Wandchester's facetious admission that Blues Traveler is the reason they started a band. Poor John Popper. At least he lost some of that weight.

1:00 -- It breaks my heart that I was never able to see Whiskeytown back in the late 90s. I've come to enjoy their catalog at a far greater level than I do Ryan's solo work, who I've seen ten times. This is before Ryan's reputation was crystalized, before his string of high-profile relationships, and before the famous Summer of 69 incident. Just a talented dude playing in a killer rock band--a formula that always works.

1:21 -- Not shown: Caitlin Cary, Whiskeytown's only other wire-to-wire member besides Ryan Adams. Her strong harmonies were such a perfect complement to Ryan's lead vocals, and thankfully so, because despite his best efforts, Phil Wandscher wasn't much of a singer.

1:32 -- As Ryan falls out of the shot here, we get a clear shot of the southpaw Wandscher, who wasn't long for the band but was a presence on Faithless Street.

2:15 -- I gotta stop choosing these one-shot clips. There's only so much to write about...

2:33 -- Well hey, ask and ye shall receive. There's drummer Skillet Gilmore, current drummer of Raleigh rockers Patty Hurst Shifter and, if I'm not mistaken, husband to Caitlin Cary.

3:33 -- There are a few other clips from this gig, including a few that are more musically engaging, but really the first 30 seconds are validate this video's existence.

Until next month!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

February 21, 2010: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
The Pour House (Charleston, SC)
February 21, 2010

It's been roughly 2 1/2 years since the first time I saw Isbell and his band rock the Pour House stage. My review of the show was one of the earlier posts on this here blog. Back then, I was struck by how humble and charming Isbell appeared, yet at the same time commanding a great deal of respect from the audience. The same went for last May, when I caught his act a second time at the Windjammer, out on Isle of Palms (one of Charleston's major beaches.) However, something seemed a bit different this time around. Isbell seemed a little more ragged, a little more loose. His banter was a bit less calculated, a bit more goofy (spent a minute praising one of our local Piggly Wiggly grocery stores), as if he was playing to a bunch of his pals instead of a reverent throng of fans. He cursed--a lot. He punctuated most of his sentences with "or some shit", and we heard "fuck" a few dozen times.

Somewhat pessimistically, I read this as a bit of a regression. While I don't care in the slightest that he's spitting profanity--I'm a guy whose girlfriend reprimands him constantly for cussing in public when children are around--Isbell was, in my eyes, made less awe-inspiring by this perceived devolution. In times past, he seemed very focused and exalted, gracefully stoic and showing every sign of inevitable stardom. He carried himself as if he'd be playing in front of sprawling masses someday. Yet last night, Isbell was just a guy on stage. I saw moments of vulnerability, even mid-song. A friend of mine who tagged along with me (and who knows not a note of Isbell's music) said "He doesn't always look happy to be up there."

But maybe I should come at this from a different angle. Perhaps Jason has realigned his expectations. Perhaps he's realized that playing in a club in front of a few hundred folks affords an artist the ability to be less refined, to be less a far-reaching presence. I could only imagine his standard had been inflated during his three-album stint in the Truckers. With the established band, he was playing in mid-sized venues as opposed to roadside bars like the Pour House. Maybe it took him a couple of years to embrace the benefits of this stage of his band's growth. To analogize this a bit, I work for a company 10 bodies strong. My boss is of the mindset that we should act like a Fortune 500 company, and before we know it, we'll be one. However, he's softened a bit to the notion that being a small company has its benefits (even if the goal of steady growth remains.) We don't have to clock in or clock out, we can dress down a bit, crack jokes in meetings, that sort of thing. The quality of work is still there, but you don't have to maintain such an iconic image, since all eyes aren't on you quite yet. So in some way, Jason Isbell is embracing the same theory.

With all this psychoanalytical blather, I haven't broached the most important talking point: Good god man, the music! Did JI&T400U bring the goods? The tinnitus from which I'm still suffering would like to answer that question. The band smashed out 2 and a half hours worth of its pop-affected Southern rock, and it had the whole place in a frenzy for the duration. The highlight of the evening for me was "Decoration Day", the Isbell-penned Truckers anthem I'd yet to hear. Truckers-wise, we heard the aforementioned, "Outfit", "Danko/Manuel", "Goddamned Lonely Love", a bruising "Never Gonna Change" to close the main set, and finally the much-requested ballad "TVA", which appeared on last year's rarities compilation The Fine Print.

The band of course rolled through a handful Isbell's solo tracks, including at least half a dozen from Sirens of the Ditch, which has aged surprisingly well. During the slow basher "Try", the band segued into Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" for a few measures. This isn't uncommon: at the Windjammer gig, I went all fanboy when "Never Gonna Change" melted into Wilco's "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" for a minute or so.

As is standard with Isbell, the band checked off a handful of satisfying covers. Stand-bys "Psycho Killer" and set-closer "American Girl" were crowd pleasers, and I was happy to hear Big Star's "When My Baby's Beside Me", although most of the crowd may have been wondering who the hell Big Star was. Isbell offered props to Big Star after the song--"Both the band and the grocery store."

As great a night it was, I sure hope Jason's next album is a breakthrough of sorts. The band needs to find a broader audience. I believe they've played Charleston 4 times in less than three years, and you can only imagine with that sort of saturation that it might have a slimming effect on the turn-out. Still, this is one fan who'll at least always try to make an Isbell gig. But the urgency I feel to attend is a bit less palpable each time, and the excuse of "I'll catch him next time" is all the more appealing. But alas, here's to continued success for Isbell and his 400 Unit, and may their next album be a game-changer.

A few iPhone-tastic pics:




Other Pour House Reviews:
Jason Isbell (2007)
The Hold Steady
The Felice Brothers

Friday, February 19, 2010

Elton John: Jesus Was Gay.



Today in Statements That In No Way Will Offend Anyone: everybody's favorite bespectacled gaptoothed man-diva alleged that Jesus was a "super-intelligent gay man." Zombie Jerry Fallwell is praying for our souls, and also, braaaains.

But what does this mean for Lord and Savior, Son of Man, and alleged fruitcup Jesus Harold Christ? Were his sandals actually designer Minolo Blancs? Was Mary Magdalene just an ugly chick who tagged along to gay bars? In the Sermon on the Mount, did Jesus also say "Blessed is the new season of Project Runway"? Tell us more EJ!

At any rate, I'd like to announce my plans to sell protest materials outside of any upcoming Elton John concerts. High-quality paint stirrers taped to neon posterboard scrawled with such hard-hitting messages as "JC WASNT GAY", "GO TO HELLTON, JOHN", and "AT LEAST JESUS DIDN'T NEED BERNIE TAUPIN TO BE RELEVANT." Only 50 dollars a pop! Get your hatred while it's hot!

/satire

Here's the quote in question, which is the only allusion throughout the entire interview that EJ made to the gay Christ postulate. From the irritating Parade.com:
"I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems. On the cross, he forgave the people who crucified him. Jesus wanted us to be loving and forgiving. I don't know what makes people so cruel. Try being a gay woman in the Middle East -- you're as good as dead."
The part about Jesus being gay seems kind of superfluous, although not to say it isn't resounding. Makes you wonder if he just threw it in there just to stir up the Christian right. Especially considering the publication, Parade, is a harmless aggregation of puff-pieces, like the Regis and Kelly of syndicated magazines. I imagine many a churchgoing housewife will raise her eyebrows, asserting in a mild Southern drawl, "Well, I liked him but now I just don't know if I can support that kinda filth!" (takes kids to soccer, feeds golden retriever, shops at Bed Bath and Beyond, watches Ellen)

To conclude, I'll mention that HSW contributor Thomas and I saw Elton John back in college, and if being gay made Jesus that entertaining, maybe we'd all be a bit more committed to his teachings. Overheard at the Rapture: "The bitch is back!"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Deeper In: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- Conclusion



A final point I'd like to address is that one must recognize Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's eerie allusions to 9/11 imagery, despite being written prior to the attacks. As "Jesus, Etc." portends, "Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs." It's important to note that the album was, due to the record label snafu, released after the attacks. So much about it seemed relevant: The lyrics, the bizarre musical sentiment, even the album cover (featuring two Chicago apartment buildings, whose similarity to the World Trade Towers is minimal but still a bit chilling.) I don't doubt that some of the album's success was time relevant, but not in the same way as Ryan Adams' "New York, New York". Like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Ryan's song was written well before the attacks. However, his was received as an anthem, a rallying cry and celebration of the city. I think YHF was more of a catharsis for some folks, or a musical manifestation of a post-9/11 reality check. It's not an uplifting album, but I'd argue that it isn't completely without hope. It's an endorsement of human relationships, the vehicles by which we are borne through the most difficult of times. And that's why the album's final lyric is so important. We all have reservations about war, terrorism, money, religion, and every other facet of life. But the one shred of faith that at least can but retained when all else is so daunting is the faith in another person. Again, this is why the album is so relatable. It's a slush of emotions that inquisitive, flawed 20-somethings juggle on a daily basis.

A disclaimer that I'd like to reinforce is that this lengthy write-up is my interpretation and in no way is it an objective retelling of the band's approach to the album. I emphasize this not to deflect any criticism or refutations, but rather to remind the reader not to go around trumpeting any of my analysis as fact. I'd imagine if Jeff Tweedy read my write-up, he'd say one of two things. Either, "Wow, it's great that something I created can take a life of its own in someone else's mind." Or alternately, "Jesus, this guy is not only way off base, but he thought more about these lyrics than I did." Anyone's critical analysis and even their base enjoyment of the album are all affected by things like our exposure to other art, our preconceptions of the artist in question, our own subconscious ability to make something mean whatever we want it to mean. Regardless, it all boils down thusly: This is one way of looking at it. I'd be interested to read other critical analysis of the album and see what kind of parallels can be drawn.

I was ultimately inspired to write about this because, with an album such as this, the appeal lies beyond "Well, it just sounds good." Because, frankly, that doesn't work for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It doesn't roll smoothly into the ears, in the way that, say, Van Morrison's Moondance does. Yet it's as critically acclaimed as any. It's a deep and dense album, one that demands patience, repeat listens, and an appreciation of subtlety to truly enjoy. I don't know if anyone latched on to YHF after the first listen. But over time it reveals itself, rewarding the listener. And whether or not you pay any heed to my essay and peg me for a longwinded fanboy (you'd be right), I'd invite anyone who hasn't fully embraced the album to give it a few more listens. All in all, the album is a perfect representation of the way I interpret Jeff Tweedy's intentions as a musician. As with Kid A or Pinkerton, each song on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot represents some greater credo that could be chiseled in into the artist's monumental facade.

Thanks for reading, and happy listening!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Deeper In: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- On the Album

Looking at the albums that preceded YHF, the stylistic gaps seem interplanetary, but that's not to say there isn't a traceable thread of progression. A.M. is Tupelo lite: Some above-average, charming, chicken-fried alt-rock that didn't tell us any more than we already knew about Jeff Tweedy's songwriting (except, perhaps, for the contemplative lap-steel/acoustic duet "Dash 7" which is a bellwether of songs like "Sunken Treasure" and "Ashes of American Flags" whose lyrics go a long way in creating the song's atmosphere.)



Wilco found its legs with Being There, their sophomore two-discer that was the ambitious move the band needed to make; not to keep up with Jay Farrar's Son Volt, but rather to escape its shadow, to carve their own path. While the songwriting wasn't radically different from that of A.M., there were two major distinctions: First, Jeff Tweedy's lyrical approach was much more sophisticated and depended more on imagery and extended analogies than ever before. The second difference was the addition of Jay Bennett to the band's line-up. His unique approach to arrangements was apparent on disc openers "Misunderstood" and "Sunken Treasure", the two earliest examples of "Wilco Noise" (feedback, general chaos) that would reprise itself on ensuing efforts.

Then came Summerteeth, the marked the apex of the Tweedy/Bennett collaborative era. Wilco's metamorphosis from a late-stage Tupelo was complete. This was an indie-pop album, shining from its thick lacquer of keyboards and studio effects. According to Greg Kot's fantastic book Learning to Die, Bennett and Tweedy made this record in isolation, and only brought in the other members late in the game for final touches.

Wilco's sound was expanding and energized, and all signs pointed to the next LP building on that grand vivacity. And yet, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is markedly restrained. It is an album of, as Jeff Tweedy mumbles during that tremendously uncomfortable meet-and-greet scene in the documentary, "holes." What Jeff means is anyone's guess--but I imagine he's referring to the scant arrangements on songs like "Poor Places" and "Radio Cure". This stripped-down approach was largely the result of avante-garde musician/producer Jim O'Rourke's involvement in mixing the record. Makes you wonder if he had something to do with that minimalist cover art too.

I interpret YHF not as if it's autobiographical, but rather as if it follows a single character Jeff Tweedy created for the purpose of projecting a greater theme. I hear each song from the perspective of this character, cataloging both his most complex and simple reflections of the world around him. I see him as a young man trapped in postmodern middle America, whose personal issues are magnified by his disenchanted view of the country. It's not anti-Patriotic, but rather a tacit acceptance of the gloomy state of the nation. It's no surprise that this album was so resonant with the 20-something fringe.

The album's progression is a thing to behold. Its immaculate sequencing guides the listener along cinematically, each song like a different scene, with sonic suggestions of lighting, mood, flashback, etc. The songs run a sinuous gamut of emotions, from pensive aggression to depression to brief spells of affection and nostalgia. The climactic breakdown of "Poor Places" filters brilliantly into the post-Apocalytpic assent of "Reservations", wherein he declares, "I've got reservations about so many things, but not about you." And there lies what I believe is Tweedy's conclusion.

But let's start at the beginning. The first sounds we hear are a cacophony of bells, clocks, and drum rolls over the faint coo of a synthesizer. It all suggests the ambiance of that twice-mentioned "big city blinking". The song's lyrics are curious, cryptic, but one gets the sense of an unhealthy on-and-off relationship, in which the character continually asks "What was I thinking?" before admitting, "I am trying to break your heart." The piano, which up to that point in the song had played with accidental notes and flittered through the scales, finally collects into strong, pounding chords for a cathartic bridge that seems like the album's title should be flashing onscreen. General sonic chaos ensues, including a curious call-ahead to "I'm The Man That Loves You."

"Kamera" is a neatly-packaged affair with its tight rhythm and no-nonsense pace, and lyrically it continues the theme of big city confusion when our narrator concedes he's "lost on the sidewalk". We also hear the first mention of war and family, two themes that regularly interweave throughout the course of the album. It's also a perfect example of O'Rourke's influence on the album. Its hurried tempo could have easily fallen victim to musical oversaturation. And it almost did: a few demos/alternate takes present the song as an overdriven noise rock anthem, with Tweedy straining to yelp vocals over the chugging guitars. But the song's restraint is its best quality, and yet it still lends the album some vitality early on.

If there's one Yankee Hotel Foxtrot song most casual listeners take issue with, it's "Radio Cure". And to be fair, it's anything but accessible. But it's a brilliantly constructed song and an exercise in tension-building. All its unorthodox qualities--the eerie pulse, the clucking banjo flares, the post-lobotomy vocal delivery--provide such a jarring contrast to the chorus, especially that final refrain when Tweedy's vocals rise above the noise to underscore the pained lyric, "distance has no way of making love understandable." This might be the conclusion of the character's escape to the big city (as referenced in the opening track). His attempts to distance himself from the source of his emotional turmoil have only proved that harbored feelings will travel.

Also of note in "Radio Cure" is the continued musical theme of wandering outside a song's key, arriving at notes or chords that provide jarring contrast and make the song seem just a tad off-kilter (which, judging from all the other musical decisions in play, seems to be the goal.) During the chorus, the band reaches across keys and injects a chord that's alien to the song. This theme is repeated in "Poor Places", which brilliantly crystallizes its ominous outro sequence. Songwriters take note: An unexpectedly off-key chord is a good way to smack the listener's brain around a bit.



The scope of YHF swivels outward at this point, as "War on War" snatches the baton and provides another tempo upswing that perpetuates the album's run of contrasting tempos and song-styles while maintaining a unifying aesthetic thread throughout. "War on War" speaks of the cyclical and paradoxical nature of conflict, as well as the theme of submission that surfaces a few times in the album. The lyric "You have to learn how to die, if you wanna, wanna be alive" suggests that war is inevitable, and accepting it is the only real solution. The song may be a metaphor, but it's certainly appropriate vis-a-vis the nation at war to which the album would be released.

"Jesus, Etc." is, next to "Heavy Metal Drummer", the most digestible track on the album. Originally entitled "Jesus, Don't Cry", its title was the result of the lazy labeling of a demo-tape, and the name stuck. The song is sweet and nihilistic--another recurring theme that gives weight to that final, conclusive line of "Reversations" to which I referred to earlier. "Jesus Etc." is a cautiously groovy love song, a thicket of violins interweaving over a soft electric piano and--what's that I hear? A lap steel guitar? You'd think Wilco was a country band at some point...

Despite its fatalistic lyrics ("everyone is a burning sun"), there is an uplifting feel to the song, and it serves as another fascinating glimpse into this character's mindframe--one to which we can all relate. No mental state is static. Every human being, no matter his general outlook on life, has moods and whims. "Radio Cure" and "Jesus, Etc." are creations of the same hand, after all.

"Ashes of American Flags" is one of the album's greatest accomplishments. It's a candid and even heartbreaking lyrical display, with the chorus of "All my lies are always wishes/I know I would die if I could come back new" surely eliciting some sort of aching pity in any listener. That theme of acceptance and submission flares anew in the song, especially in the second verse, when the character dismisses poetry (and perhaps by extension art) for passive consumerism. Since "nobody gives a fuck" about poetry, might as well just buy soda and cigarettes and call it a day, right? The drumwork on "Ashes" is especially poignant, and it's something that latter-era Wilco does so well. Glenn Kotche's concern with actively texturing the song as opposed to providing a backtrack went a long way in taking Wilco to that next artistic wrung. It should be noted, however, that Jay Bennett wrote and provided a good bit of the percussion work for the album. Between the two of them, I'd consider Yankee Hotel one of the most fascinating examples of drumwork on a rock album (though that term is of course used loosely here.) The song, which surely indicates the album's midpoint, is punctuated by a chaotic swirl of feedback and samples, which could represent some sort of breakdown or panic attack. This wouldn't be a stretch for two reasons: First, the nature of the song lends itself nicely to such a display. Secondly, the band would later dedicate a 10+ minute stretch of noise on A Ghost Is Born in an attempt to musically illustrate the intense migraines Tweedy has long suffered. Contextually, it makes sense that the sounds we hear aren't strictly arbitrary, but rather representational.

Earlier, I cited nostalgia as one of the emotions present on the album, and the purest example of that is "Heavy Metal Drummer". It's almost tragic that the most unarguably joyous track on YHF is just our character reminiscing about better days. I love the contrast of sound and lyrics here; it's as if the electronic run between verses is a taunt at the character who longs for the days of brash 80s metal. Yet those times are gone, and now he must rely on high-volume classical music to "mask the ringing in (his) ears".

As if inspired by his memories, we hear a great deal of confidence in "I'm The Man Who Loves You", a thumping mid-tempo romp equal parts noise-rock and soul. The lyrics are lighthearted, image-heavy (I particularly love the opening lines dedicated to describing a piece of ruled paper), and again conjure the theme of acceptance we've seen several times, albeit in a more positive manner. The lyric, "It makes no difference ever known to me" after the description of "a busy sea of spinning wheels" is kind of like saying "It's a crazy world out there, but none of it matters because I love you." The guitar interplay on the song is choppy and frantic, bolstered by some wiry slide guitar and chunky horn section. It remains one of Wilco's finer live servings, and contextually, it's the album's character with his head lifted as high as he can manage.

After "I'm The Man" fizzles out, we reach YHF's most underrated song, "Pot Kettle Black." Here the album dims after two distinctively upbeat songs. "Pot Kettle Black" is a little more serious, similar to "War on War" but more anxious and anticipatory. The lyrics are about as introspective as any song on the album, with the character confronting his own issues. I think we actually see more of Jeff Tweedy shining through on this song, since much of it seems vaguely autobiographical. The lyric, "I myself have found a real rival in myself," could refer to his unwillingness to acquiesce to his label's expectations. In the context of the album, it's a tone-setter for its successor...

Some chirping noises and radio static flicker to life as "Poor Places" begins. It's the album's crown jewel, yet at the same time it's a fractured pop song from a mind about to unravel. It's a brilliant employment of the much maligned I-V-vi-IV chord progression, which you can read about here. But it's executed so well, all behind a vocal melody that's a bit crazed and lyrics that are self-deprecating and bizarre, while framed by quaint recollections of personal minutia like his father's voice and a bow in his backyard. It's hard not to feel sympathetic when he sings "My fangs have been pulled, and I really want to see you tonight." This reads as an admission of defeat; he's neutralized, innocuous and at the same time defenseless. And all he wants is the comfort of the person for whom he longs. It's sad and pitiful, and you get the sense he's struggling to hold it together. The song's lyrics integrate every theme and emotion we've heard yet: disenchantment, nostalgia, longing, nihilism. But most importantly, dour acceptance.

After the third verse, however, the music changes course, grows increasingly inclement, and we hear the character's true outlook, his assessment of everything that's led up to this point:
"And it makes no difference to me,
if they cry all over overseas,
because it's hot in the poor places tonight
I'm not going outside."
With this declaration, he's has allowed himself to be crushed into his own poor place by his mental burdens, and he's thrown his hands up to problems outside his own. He's drawn his curtains and given up on the world, the struggles abroad, and everything else. It equates to a loss of faith in his own spirit. As the piano plays its ominous refrain behind that cold, robotic voice reciting the album's title, the music is swallowed by cyclones of distorted feedback. This is the album's climax; mental anarchy manifested by tidal waves of noise and indecipherable codes. And all the character can do is wait out the storm.

The feedback subsides, and some rushing electronics and solemn piano chords initiate the final movement, a seven minute dénouement. "Reservations" is the epitome of an album-closing song: It resolves the disc thematically, it musically creates the feel of a closing sequence complete with a minutes-long instrumental coda. Tweedy's aching delivery and lyrics are the perfect culmination of the heavily emotional masterpiece. The two most important lyrics of the song (and, perhaps, the album) are its first and last lines:
"How can I convince you it's me I don't like
and not be so indifferent to the look in your eyes?"
Perhaps this is a roundabout way of approaching the "It's not you, it's me" angle, but I think there's another element to it, as evidenced by the closing lyric:
"I've got reservations, about so many things, but not about you."
We all project our problems...and we often reposition them mentally, so as not to undermine ourselves. We place the blame on others to alleviate our own guilt. But Tweedy's character has deciphered this equation as to why, exactly, he is trying to break someone's heart--and recognizes that the answer is twofold: One must be aware of this tendency and--rather than seek to include others in existing turmoil--one must use others as a means of escape. And this is why I maintain that, above all, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's message doesn't lie in the foreboding "Poor Places". Like any great book, film and--yes--album, all the elements of Wilco's masterpiece collect into one resounding message: Simply enough, finding peace and optimism through others.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Deeper In: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- Familiarization

Oddly enough, the first YHF (and, indeed, Wilco) song I heard was the album's closer, "Reservations". It was the result of little more than a P2P music search in my freshman dorm room. I was embroiled in a Ryan Adams obsession, which served as something of a gateway to my eventual immersion in indie, Americana, alt-this and that, and whatever else my tastes have grown to encompass. Whilst reading up on Ryan, I'd repeatedly see his name in the company of other alternative country mainstays like the Jayhawks, Son Volt, and Wilco. The latter was especially ubiquitous, as this was only a year after YHF's release, so the band was still cresting critically.

So anyway, I downloaded "Reservations" at random from a list of search results. I'll always remember that first listen, hearing Jeff Tweedy's wounded coos amidst the breathy ambiance, thinking, "This guy's voice is exactly what I hear in my head when I think of alt-country music." Suffice to say, YHF ain't exactly alt-country. But there's something about Tweedy's unpretentious, everyman delivery that's so important to the Wilco aesthetic. It also immaculately complements Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's message, but I'll get to that.

In usual idiotic fashion, I didn't pursue the band until some months later. I guess I was still in the final throes of freshman-year douchebaggery: blasting Zeppelin from my dorm room, learning Dave Matthews songs on guitar, bitching about Columbia ad nauseam. It wasn't til my return to Columbia, post-summer of 2004, that I decided to download the entirety of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. By that time it was already being canonized by most critics and fans, so I felt somewhat obligated to give it a go.

As a neophyte to musical subtlety at this point, it would take more than casual absorption for a full appreciation of the album. But due to a pair of seemingly unrelated factors, I became inured to the album's eccentricities over the next few months. The factors are as follows:
  1. The summer prior to downloading YHF, I'd inherited my mother's old '95 Jeep Cherokee. It had a 10-CD changer, a feature I initially celebrated. However, it soon became evident that due to its location in the rear of the vehicle, changing discs was a laborious task, one that I'd undertake roughly once a month.
  2. That semester--this is fall of 2004--I took a job at a small newspaper in Blythewood, about 20 miles outside of Columbia. This meant a round trip of about 40-50 minutes daily, depending on traffic.
You've already done the math, but I'll flesh it out: Over the course of the semester, I rarely touched that disc changer. Therefore, those albums that were in rotation generally stayed in it. And, wouldn't you know it, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was one of them. For several months, I'd drive the span of I-77 to the strains of bizarre keyboards and murky feedback, usually nonplussed and wondering what the hell was coming out of my speakers. But the album slowly came into focus. I still wasn't sure why there was a robotic woman repeating "yankee, hotel, foxtrot", or why Jeff Tweedy didn't believe in touchdowns. But something about the words and sounds seemed knowing and genuine.

Despite my immersion, I'd say I was still intrigued by rather than sold on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I'd approached it scientifically, I guess, since it was not only an introduction to Wilco, but indeed to a genre (Prog-Indie-Alt-Americana or some such shit.) I was reluctant to down the Wilco Kool-Aid just yet. That winter, I'd scoop up the recently-dropped A Ghost Is Born, as well as A.M., Being There, and Summerteeth (I became hopelessly obsessed with the latter for several months.) But it wasn't until that February, in Charlotte, when the cathartic, swirling finale of "Poor Places" was pouring over my face like raging flames, that I understood what Wilco was all about. This was a watershed moment, people. So from there my Wilco obsession took wing, and after six (and counting!) live shows, two times meeting Tweedy, a slew of posters and shirts and longwinded blog posts, here we are.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Deeper In: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- Introduction



Relative to its legend, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is like a gold nugget suspended in a jello mold. The dramatic sequence of events that surrounded the album's release was famously captured by Sam Jones in I am trying to break your heart, the filming of which surely found Jones turning to his cameramen and asking, "Holy shit, are you getting all this?" at least a few times. The songwriting, the spats, the eventual rifts, the chundering, the incendiary phone calls, blended with that rich swirl of dramatic irony afforded by the album's eventual success. All in all, a documentarist's dream sequence.

Undeniably fascinating, the documentary has also cast a shadow that can obscure the album's standalone brilliance. The uneducated observer might conclude that YHF's success and/or critical reception has been unduly inflated by the collateral fanfare (i.e. the documentary, delayed release, and the backstory in general). I mean, if every album had such a unique birthing process and artsy black-and-white documentation, perhaps they'd all be classics, right?

I shouldn't have to hammer out a tome to prove the absurdity of such statements. In reality, it boils down to the time-tested life cycle of hype: Buzz, approval, backlash, support, dissent. And finally, like a boulder rolling off a fencepost, the album will thud to one side of that "classic status" barrier. At this point, YHF is a confirmed member of the the elite (a position given water by its charting on virtually all best of the decade lists.)

But even that is just an objectification of something that cannot be objectified (something I would never do...) So why is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot so great? In this month's "The Deeper In", I will defend the album's lofty status through hard-hitting critical thematic (over)analysis. I'll explain my interpretation of YHF as a thematically rich album that, despite what it seems, bears a positive message. Over the next three days, I'll first offer my personal account of familiarization with YHF. Then, I'll offer a lengthy (and I do mean lengthy) analysis of the album proper. Finally, I'll wrap it with a few afterthoughts on Thursday.

As always I welcome any feedback, supplementary ideas, or outright disagreements. Until tomorrow!

Friday, February 12, 2010

I'm retroactively creating a feature...read on...

So remember last month, when I wrote that big four part series about Uncle Tupelo? I've decided to undertake something so ambitious on a monthly basis. It allows for deeper analysis of some personal music interests. I've dubbed it "The Deeper In", an homage to the Drive-By Truckers song of the same name. It'll be a multi-day series of posts (generally three to five), and they'll be a bit longer than usual.

So look out for the next installment which will be appearing next week. Wilco fans, prepare!

(I was going to post a video of "The Deeper In" but there are only fan-made vids. So here's the song right after it, the ass-kicking "Sinkhole:)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

MGMT 201

Have you heard? Synth-pop oddballs MGMT are gearing up for the release of album #2, apparently called Congratulations.

As I guy who just wrote a sweeping four-part feature on Uncle Tupelo, you'd think I'd have little patience for a some preening face painted white dudes who get their jollies on synthesizers and vocal modulation. But man, I loved Oracular Spectacular. It conjures the vivid surreality of driving through "Rainbow Road" from Mario Kart 64:



The album is like ear candy, sweet to the taste and chock full of processed ingredients. But man was it addictive. The first five tracks are such a brilliant run of songs, from the dumb but goodhearted "Time to Pretend" on through the anthemic "Kids". And it's the silly minutia that I like about it so much. Like the way he says "weekend waah-ooooowuz!" It's over the top, but what about the album isn't?

MGMT seems to be a band destined for the mainstream, but their approach to songwriting is very smart and their execution of the style they've crafted is perfect. I might never place them in the company of my personal musical titans--the Waitses, the Wilcos, the Radioheads--but it's nice to sneak off beneath the bleachers and listen to something so out of sync with my usual tastes. I suppose it keeps me honest, satiates that craving; let's face it, a little MGMT goes a long way. But man, does it go.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Australians get to hear a new Decemberists song

Colin Meloy is playing Australia right now, and he debuted a song recently. It's a warm but soft uptempo acoustic number similar to "Red Right Ankle". Colin riffs for a few minutes on Australia before getting into the song; it's not the most riveting commentary, but you do get to hear people laughing along to something they probably don't think is really funny, but feel obligated to laugh at anyway. At any rate, the song's called Springville. Enjoy:



Helluva beard Colin's sporting there, eh?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Whathaveyou


  • Joanna Newsom has a new record coming out, which is apparently a pretty big deal. I listened to a few tracks from it, and it sounds awful. Just awful. Look, I'm pretty open minded about music--especially weird singers. I'm a huge latter-era Tom Waits fan, after all. But damn, this just oozes pretentiousness. I hope I have to eat these words some day...I hope it clicks, and her sharply enunciated pixie chants will greet my ears kindly. But it's hard to conceive now. I viscerally could not stand what I heard.
  • The new Spoon and Vee-Dub have dominated my personal earspace this year. Can't decide if "I Think Ur A Contra" or "Out Go the Lights" has been in my head more often.
  • My concert schedule has filled out nicely: Jason Isbell in a few weeks is a definite, but the big get is My Morning Jacket in April. They're in the upper echelon of bands I need to see but haven't. Hopefully the Arcade Fire will come close later this year.
  • Finally bought another Velvet Underground album after a few years of frustration. I tried to appreciate the influential group, but it wasn't happening. But Loaded is going down a bit smoother. I'm intrigued...will stay on this one and hopefully something will click.
  • Thanks to Drew for pointing me towards a nice live collection of Richard Buckner material. His husky vocals and endearing inflections are certainly dominant, but not over the top (Joanna Newsom should take note.)
  • I think The Basement Tapes features one of Bob Dylan's most interesting vocal styles. He's been characterized as a speak-singer (Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan serving as the template for most impressions.) But on The Basement Tapes, he's pretty much just talking with a bit of bravado. It's oddly likable.
  • Here's a really good write-up about how Wilco slayed at a Neil Young tribute. And apparently they were pretty much the only ones who weren't a letdown.