Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Say it ain't so, Avetts!



The Avett Brothers will open for John Mayer.

I understand it's difficult to turn down an opening slot for one of the biggest names in music. Especially major label reps are breathing down your neck, reminding you they've invested heavily in your band and they expect a return. I don't disparage the boys' decision at all. It's just a bitter pill to swallow...

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March 26, 2010: Wilco

Wilco
The Fox Theater

Atlanta, GA

March 26, 2010


(see review of previous night's show)

As you might have read, night one was a success. But could Wilco follow it up with a second outstanding performance, one that made a much longer trip worthwhile?

Short answer: Of course they could. My doubts had already been staved off by the Savannah performance, so I went into Atlanta with a bit more optimism, although readily expecting to see a lot of the same ground covered as the night before. As mentioned, our seats were row R, although at the Fox that's really not so distant from the stage. However, we were on the far end of the row, so it was akin to watching a TV from a 50 degree angle: a little uncomfortable at first, but you could still see everything just fine.

The crowd was exponentially better as far as I could tell. Folks there for the music, the "Jesus Etc." sing-along was far more participatory, and the acoustic set rose above any crowd noise. This might be because we were closer and more ensconced in the true fans, or perhaps a big city crowd just knows how to act. Whatever the case, it was a far more enjoyable experience from that standpoint. At one point, a front row ticketholder got the boot early on after allegedly trying to photograph the band. Online chatter suggests he may have been simply checking his phone; but regardless, the guy got the heave ho and I'm not sure if he ever made it back in.

The set started identically to Savannah's, with the robotic announcement and the corny introduction. The first handful of songs were by and large the same, until "Nothingsevergonnastandinmywayagain", the hard-hitting Summerteeth indie-pop jam. From there it was only repeats until the acoustic set, again borne out of the noise finale of "Poor Places". If you had asked me what three songs I would like to hear, I might have said "'Far Far Away', 'Hesitating Beauty', and anything from A.M." Incredibly, I was met with all three over the course of six songs. In fact, the boys played two from their underrated debut: A folkabilly version of "Casino Queen" that sounded not unlike Ryan Adams' "To Be Young"; and a version of "Passenger Side" that had the whole place hollering the lyric, "You're gonna make me spill my beer/if you don't learn how to steer!"

The latter portion of the show was essentially a repeat of Savannah, save for a blistering version of "Theologians" with Tweedy screaming the high notes over its powerful bridge. After the "Thank You Friends" encore, the lights went up, and my Wilco two-nighter was complete. We hurried to the parking lot and navigated the clotted streets around the Fox, found our way onto 75/85 South, and hopped onto I-20. A full tank of gas and a fourth meal at Waffle House later, we were en route to Charleston, where we'd groggily roll in at 5:30 A.M, just as Eastern sky was glowing a bit.

Once again, I was floored by the Wilco machine. I've realized that this is virtually a no-risk situation, that between my unbridled fandom and their ability to deliver, I won't be let down. Not even one or two disappointing outings would dissuade me from hovering over the next presale. So how does a band that tours so damned much, a band I've seen eight times in five years, remain consistently enjoyable?

It boils down to the fact that Wilco is self-aware. And they should be; Jeff Tweedy (and perhaps manager Tony Margherita) has gone to great lengths to turn this band into exactly what it is. He's fired dissenters, he's snubbed his record company, he's regulated concert photography, he's made decisions that have developed the Wilco brand--one that, again, they're keenly aware of (see "Wilco (The Song)".) And it's a well-run business, one that is grossing $75,000 a night not including ticket percentages and merch sales (source: I know a guy).

But the awareness is also reflected in their live shows. Most bands and artists I've seen, whether you like it or not, are going to load setlists with new material. Tom Waits, Radiohead, Ryan Adams, the Hold Steady, etc...probably 75% of their sets are comprised of output from the most recent 20% of their career. Audiences know this going in, and any old favorites they hear are gravy. Perhaps this is the result of artistic viability: All of the aforementioned artists (even if Adams is in a slump) are still releasing relevant and well-received material. On the flip side of that equation, consider Elton John, who I saw a few years ago. He had a new record out, and played a handful of new songs right off the bat. But after that, the show read like the back of a greatest hits album. And that's to be expected of a legend who's asking a ton of money from his fans.

Wilco, however, is smart enough to achieve a balance. They're still considered a critical force, yet they pepper their sets with just enough of the established, old-guard routine to make it work. They play new stuff and (unlike at an EJ show) most fans actually know it and enjoy it. As you've read, they've embraced, for lack of a less scathing word, stunts that won't earn them any credit with rock show purists. They raffled gift certificates, for instance, at both the Savannah and Atlanta show (and all others on this tour, as I understand.) Fans entered the raffle by making a song request on their website, and the winners not only get the gift certificate, but they get to hear their request (except for one person who made a "crappy request" and one guy who requested "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart". Tweedy, to the latter: "As if we weren't going to play that song anyway...use your head!") So there's all that, there's the "Jesus Etc." sing-along, there's the "Wilco (The Song)" name check sequence...all in all, theatrics that seem more befitting of an interactive kids concert than a rock show by a band once at the vanguard of progressive indie rock.

But as all this goes on, Wilco still winks and nods at the true devotees, the music fans among us who'll shrug off the shenanigans just to hear the feedback swirl of "Handshake Drugs" and the twisted lyrics of "She's a Jar". We'll deal with the inherent silliness of writing a song about your own band because they'll still reach back and play deep cuts and beloved classics in droves. And why? Because they're self-aware. They exist in a rare plane: the overlap of reverence and relevance. And that, I'd argue, is a pretty special place to be.

Setlist:

Wilco (the Song)
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Bull Black Nova
You Are My Face
One Wing
Shot In the Arm
Side With the Seeds
The Deeper Down
Nothingsevergonnastandinmywayagain
Wishful Thinking
Impossible Germany
California Stars
Poor Places

(acoustic)
Spiders
Far, Far Away
You & I
Laminated Cat
War on War
Hesitating Beauty
Casino Queen
Passenger Side

Airline to Heaven
Via Chicago
Handshake Drugs
You Never Know
Heavy Metal Drummer
Can't Stand It
Jesus, etc.
Theologians
Hate It Here
Walken
I'm the Man Who Loves You
I'm a Wheel

Encore:
Thank You, Friends


Other Fox Theater Reviews:
Tom Waits

Monday, March 29, 2010

March 25, 2010: Wilco


Wilco
The Johnny Mercer Theater
Savannah, GA
March 25, 2010

In college I took exactly one economics course, a low-level introduction to macroeconomics that was required of most students. It was almost cartoonishly boring, taught by a Ben Stein facsimile with a cardboard voice and silver beard, droning at four dozen barely awake non-majors while displaying scores of seemingly identical line graphs, each presenting some concept.

I recall very few of those graphical theories, but the one that recently emerged from my mental sludge of collegiate miscellany was "diminishing marginal utility". I'm actually not sure my understanding of the theory is correct, but here's what I think it means: As the quantity of a good or service increases, the utility (or satisfaction, let's say) decreases. For instance, if you have one ice cream sandwich after dinner, it's probably incredible. You might stuff another, and while still good you'd find yourself enjoying it a tad less. If you tried for a third, your enjoyment would continue to diminish. Get it?

Perhaps you see where I'm going with this, but if not, I'll tie it together. In the weeks leading up to my double shot of Wilco, I wondered if I was on a collision course with disappointment. Although my six prior experiences had always left my expectations in glowing shards embedded in any surface within a blast radius, I'm not naive. With their interminable touring regimen, Wilco's marginal utility to the diehards would have to diminish sometime. Surely there will be a day that I'd walk out of a Wilco show nonplussed. And in addition to the sheer volume of shows I've been privy to, a few other factors contributed to some lingering doubt as to whether these two would hold up:
  1. Neither night would I be seated any closer to the stage than row R.
  2. Wilco's last two albums are, as it stands, my least favorite of their catalog, and surely they'd occupy at least a portion of the setlist.
  3. Rigorous and convoluted travel plans meant two Georgia round trips in as many days.
So perhaps this would be it. Perhaps, when walking to my car after the Atlanta show, I'd throw my hands up and say "It was a good run." But I wasn't about to twiddle my thumbs at home while a much revered band that had not yet shown any (live) weaknesses raged only a state away. As mentioned, my itinerary was all in tangles. Girlfriend in tow, we'd head to Savannah for night one, returning to Charleston post-gig with a 2 a.m. ETA. We'd be joined by the lady's sister the next morning (our reason for not traveling directly from Savannah to Atlanta.) Furthermore, we opted against a hotel in Atlanta and instead would make the five hour drive home in shifts, putting us back in the Holy City just before dawn.

All told, 900 miles and 15 hours of driving for two concerts by a band I've already seen six times. Again, maybe this wasn't such a great idea.

Resilient, we arrived in Savannah plenty early. Early enough to claim our tickets at will call without a line, early enough to nab a T-shirt hassle-free, early enough to scarf a gyro, and early enough to find our seats with time to spare. The Johnny Mercer Theater is an unspectacular albeit much smaller a venue than Wilco is accustomed to playing these days. Large, white, coffin-shaped acoustic fixtures hung from the ceiling like a squadron of fighter planes. The crowd was a strange blend of your standard Savannah college or post-college partier, and graying patrons of the arts. Speaking to the latter, I should mention that this performance was part of the Savannah Music Festival, and thus some tickets surely went to donors who may or may not know who or what a "Wilco" is. Photography was prohibited and being caught in the act was grounds for expulsion, but I did manage to snap one of the stage before the show.


Actually a telling picture: Note the backwards baseball cap on the left, and the bald/gray heads in the middle.

When the houselights fell, a robotic "Fitter/Happier" voice welcomed us, and informed us that while audio recording, shouting requests, and general merriment were allowed, there was to be no still/video photography lest our "night with Wilco end prematurely." It was lighthearted but also sort of sobering. It served to underscore the idea that Wilco is, for better or for worse, very much a brand, and they are concerned with protecting it. Of course they'd allow their brilliant musicianship to be recorded, but blurry stillshots and shaky video don't present the band in such a flattering light, do they?

When the voice fell silent, the theme to "The Price Is Right!" blared (perhaps a subtle nod to that whole 'brand' thing), and Wilco took the stage just after 8 p.m. to much adulation, manning their instruments and launching into "Wilco (The Song)", the default opener for this tour. A moment of supreme corn ensued when, during the song's final chorus, the music stopped and the robotic voice returned and individually introduced the band members, spotlights and all, before the band leaped back in and finished the song out. It was an eyeroller of a moment, but I couldn't help but smile while I shook my head.

Just a few words about the crowd: Frankly, one of the worst audiences I've been a part of from an attentiveness standpoint. We were mostly surrounded by twenty-somethings who were insistent upon conversing loudly throughout the night. It was quite remarkable, because they were certainly fans--hooting when particular songs started--but their attention spans were so crippled that they'd lose interest within seconds. Even the guy to my right--a young man in a Georgia Southern hat who would scream like a psycho at the beginning of songs and actually cursed at people for not clapping after a song--would take extended breaks to text or converse with his concert buddies. And this wasn't exclusive to our area. A hearty din swirled throughout, even during the acoustic set. But aside from Tweedy once mentioning the crowd was rowdy, the band paid no mind to the restlessness and, by the end of the night, had them all facing front and dancing wildly. Even the older folks, some of whom remained seated for most of the show, despite the bodies of standers-up obscuring their view.

The band started into "Bull Black Nova", standout track from last year's patchy Wilco (the Album). Two songs so far, both from the new album...gulp. Thankfully, this was not to be a trend. Over the course of the night, the band reached as far back as Being There and relied heavily on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, including the rare performance of "Pot Kettle Black" and an epic "Poor Places". All in all, we only heard five W(TA) songs, most of which were the more classically Wilco tracks ("BBN", "One Wing", "The Deeper Down"). Prior to the latter, Tweedy actually said, "This is from the new album. So...talk amongst yourselves." Actually savvy advice, since it was one of the few songs from either night that didn't land.

While Nels cooked up the feedback melee of "Poor Places", something strange happened: Roadies scrambled onstage, assembling a new drumkit, hauling out a few keyboards, and scattering four lamps around the stagefront. When the chaos ended, the band set into a gorgeous nine-song stretch of acoustic songs that was everything I could have hoped for: A major-key version of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" usually reserved for Tweedy's solo shows; a crushing "At My Window Sad and Lonely" with John Stirratt's harmonies sounding stronger than ever; the Loose Fur number, "Laminated Cat", which is a slightly rearranged version of "Not For the Season"; the all-too-rarely called-upon "She's a Jar". While Tweedy started into "Airline to Heaven", the roadies broke down the acoustic set-up, and it was clear by the time the band joined in to provide the well-paced build and flourishing outro.

Wilco didn't let the excitement subside, playing another dozen songs, mostly explosive and upbeat. The expanded live version of "Ashes of American Flags" was a particular highlight, Nels' outro-solo fluttering skyward as the band built on a nice root-to-fourth progression. I really enjoy this version of "Ashes", because it ultimately casts the song in a different light. The extended solo isn't just a showcase for Nels, but also presents the song in a much more uplifting and optimistic context, one which certainly isn't possible (or intended) with the song as it is on record.

Another bit of concert corn which I was more than happy to embrace was the performance "Jesus Etc.", presented as an interactive sing-along, with Tweedy stepping back from the mic for the first 75% of the song. His review: Prior crowds sang it better, but at least this one gets to live in Savannah. Hardly a consolation to those of us from out of state, but who cares. "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "Via Chicago" are oft-played treats that highlight Glenn Kotche's talents. "Hate It Here", Sky Blue Sky dad-rock that I wish would be eradicated from the live set, was at least enough to get some of the older folks jostling.

As the night rolled on, we kept assuming each song would be the set-closer, only to be met with yet another frenzy-inducing display. I present as evidence the last four songs of the set: "Walken", "I'm the Man Who Loves You", "Hoodoo Voodoo", and "I'm a Wheel". Incredible. The band even returned to the stage for a one-song encore, the Big Star tune "Thank You Friends" in tribute to Alex Chilton.

All in all, 34 songs, many I hadn't previously heard and several rarities. It was more than worth the four hour round trip. But four hours isn't even half the journey that Friday's show would entail. Could Wilco possibly validate a ten-hour round trip to see the same show again?

Find out tomorrow, when I'll review the Atlanta show and talk a bit about the Wilco experience and why it works.

UPDATE: Gregg Allman was spotted in the front row. Cool, eh?

---

Setlist:

Wilco (the song)
Bull Black Nova
You Are My Face
I am Trying To Break Your Heart
One Wing
Shot in the Arm
Side with the Seeds
At Least That's What You Said
Company In My Back
Pot Kettle Black
Deeper Down
Handshake Drugs
Impossible Germany
California STars
Poor Places (interesting segue into acoustic set during "noise"

Acoustic:

Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Forget the Flowers
At My Window Sad and Lonely (I padded the request with this one, along with ....)
Laminated Kat (dunno if this was already on the list, but I posted "blank" and typed it in)
Wishful Thinking
War On War
She's a Jar
Airline to Heaven

Ashes of American Flags
Heavy Metal Drummer
Jesus, etc.
You Never Know
Via Chicago
I'm Always In Love
Hate It Here
Walken
I'm the Man Who Loves You
Hoodoo Voodoo
I'm a Wheel

Encore:
Thank You Friends

Friday, March 26, 2010

Whathaveyou

  • MGMT's new record, Congratulations, is floating around. It's grand and cartoonish, as you might expect, like indie-rock Japanamation or something. One listen in, and I'm quite happy with the display of brightly colored synthpop. We'll see how it ages with repeat listens.
  • Not music, but worth noting: David Cross has a new stand-up album coming out. A May release, it'll provide some comic relief (literally) during the onslaught music May has in store.
  • Speaking of said onslaught, The National has made available the first single from High Violet, the much-hyped "Bloodbuzz Ohio". And I dare say it's as good as the hype suggests.
  • A double dose of Wilco awaits (in fact by the time this posts, I'll have seen one show already.) Recent setlists are surprisingly impressive, without an excess of newish material. Look for reviews in the week(s) upcoming.
  • I'm not particularly thrilled with the Drive-By Truckers' new album, but they're a band that's proved my initial assessments wrong in the past. Hoping it's a grower, and thinking it might be.
  • One of my favorite albums ever is Dylan's Blood On the Tracks. But I noticed something about it the other day. Except for about two songs, the format of that album is this: Bunch of lyrics/title of the song/bunch of lyrics/title of the song/bunch of lyrics/title of the song.
  • Speaking of legendary songwriters: I'm a big Neil Young fan, but On the Beach is an album of his I've never managed to get into. And it's very much for a lack of trying. So I've put it in my rotation lately and it's certainly picking up steam.
  • Don't forget to vote on the poll at the top right of the page if you haven't already!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Typecasting the members of Blitzen Trapper



I like Blitzen Trapper. Their last album Furr, which I only heard in late November of 2008, still managed to creep into my Top 10 of '08 List. Their brand of Neil Young-vis-a-vis-Davy Crockett indie rock isn't too hard to grasp, but it's a brand unto their own and they do it well. They just announced a new album, which will drop in June. I'll certainly have it preordered.

All that said, I don't really know any of the members by name--I feel like we haven't reached that level in our musical relationship quite yet--so I thought it'd be fun to assign my own names/story to each one. Of course it has to be done in the context of an 1810s frontier tale, but that should go without saying. A band of adventurers takes to the uncharted West, seeking glory for a young nation and themselves. Let's meet em!

Pictured above, from L-R:

1: William O'Shaunessy: An Irish tough, skilled with a rifle, loyal but short-tempered. Something of a loner, he stands guard most nights, rarely sleeps. The others afford him his distance, but wonder of his past. He'll eventually reveal some great personal loss in his past, and it will be evident that his adventures are merely an escape.

2. Dr. Heinreicht D. Gerblehautzen: On sabbatical from the University of Munich where he studies and classifies rare fungi, Gerblehautzen is intrigued by the potential for new and exciting breeds in the New World. His advanced knowledge of plantlife could prove useful to the group as supplies dwindle.

3. Colt Abrams: The group's part-Cherokee leader, he respects nature and fears little. Carries a serrated knife in lieu of a pistol, for he believes firearms to be an "unpure tool". Fluent in several Native American languages.

4. Deidricht Klautz: Understudy and aide of Gerblehautzen. Something of a coward and ultimately a burden; detested by O'Shaunessy. The two will inevitably find themselves separated from the group, forcing them to coexist and learn a lesson about accepting others' strengths and weaknesses.

5. Bobcat Jones: Burly sideman to Abrams, nemesis of Davy Crockett for reasons that remain unclear. He is courageous to a fault, often pushing conflict when diplomacy would suffice. Has a pet wolf named Kodiak.

6. John McGinlock: Wealthy Scottish prospector and distillery owner, funded the expedition in exchange for his inclusion. His motives are strictly financial: He hopes to find new land conducive to opening distilleries in America. His entitlement is an obstacle, and his hatred of the Irishman O'Shaunessy is palpable.

I shall heretofore be referring to the members of Blitzen Trapper by the aforementioned names. Looking forward to the new album, and to seeing what kind of adventures they'll have along the way!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Tube Amp: March

Welcome back to The Tube Amp for March. Made it just under the gun! You may have read the piece directly below this one in which I skewered the "girl/world" rhyme cliche. I excused Elliott Smith's "Say Yes" because it's just too nice a song to dislike. How much of an ass would I be if I scoffed at one of the rare Elliott Smith songs that's at least a bit optimistic?

My interest piqued, I combed YouTube for performances of "Say Yes", the final track of Either/Or. The following video was the most touching of any, I thought, since it seems to encapsulate Elliott Smith's artistic vulnerability, discomfort with the spotlight, and wounded charm all at once.



:01 -- The popular appeal of the song is immediately evident by the swell of applause. I can't imagine anything made Elliott more uncomfortable, but who knows?

:13 -- If the floating spotlights are that annoying to me, they must have been driving Elliott nuts.

:26 -- This guitar looks like a Yamaha, a thought perhaps confirmed by his admission to preferring his old, cheap Yamaha to any expensive models. Goes to show, it's the player and not the guitar.

:45 -- You have to think for a guy like Elliott, stage presence wasn't really his concern. Eyes locked on his fretting hand, hunched over a mic. Must have been hell for him to play Late Night Shows...not to mention the freakin' Oscars.

1:05 -- Can anyone read his shirt? I heart something...Dental? Crystal? Mental?

1:27 -- I love this bridge here. Any aspiring songwriter should study Elliott's use of chord changes. He always had a very unique way of dancing between chords, something I try to employ in my own compositions.

1:45 -- Duh, it says "I love metal".

2:11 -- Remember what I said at :01 about Elliott not being more uncomfortable? Scratch that: the fierce applause at the end of one of his most popular songs seems to do the trick.

Barely a month after this performance, Smith would plunge a knife into his own chest, puncturing his heart and dying shortly thereafter. While it like surprised very few people, there are theories surrounding the incident. Some circumstances suggest it might have been his live-in girlfriend who killed him. This article is a long but fascinating read that presents some of the evidence, and also some really chilling information on 'sharp force trauma' ("It is an extremely painful way to die, a last resort for people so low they no longer care about themselves").

Anyway, have a great day!

5 Musical Occurrences I Irrationally Dislike


This really has nothing to do with this piece, but it came up when I typed "bad music" on Google Image search.

1. Albums Named After Phrases

These phrases never really mean anything, do they? Feeble attempts at encapsulating some profound sentiment, yanked out of the ether. I can always picture the singer/band standing on some windswept cliff, gazing off into the burning sunset and breathing the title into a cascading echo. It's like a thrift store painting or something.

Examples: Ashlee Simpson's earfuck, I Am Me; Langhorne Slim's Be Set Free; Let It Go by pretty much everyone

Exceptions: Of course Let It Be; and I have to give some love to Tupelo's Still Feel Gone because at least it's grammatically unsound.

2. Monosyllabic Album Names

Usually but not always a verb, this trended for a while in the early 2000s. Was brevity en vogue? Or just laziness? I think it lent an air of concise psuedo-stoicism to bands that, in some cases, struggled to earn the same through their actual music.

Examples: Moby's "Play", Bon Jovi's "Bounce", Blues Traveler's "Bridge", Barenaked Ladies' "Stunt", Dave Matthews Band's "Crash", Phish's "Hoist"

Exceptions: Surely they are myriad. Bob Dylan's Saved might be one to consider since it's contextually worthy, although it isn't remembered as one of Dylan's stronger efforts.

3. Songs based around the word "Hero"

An easy way to score a hit, or at least to license your song to a trillion movies. It's my own bias, but I'm far too much of a musical realist to appreciate such lofty topics. Writing a song about a hero is inherently goofy if the hero in question is of the "super" variety. Assuming it isn't, I think there are ways to aggrandize someone or something without deeming them hero, which is about as subtle and clever as an F-350 painted like an American flag.

Examples: Chad Kroeger's musical donkeypunch from the Spiderman soundtrack; The Foo Fighter's "There Goes My Hero" (not a bad song of course); countless others.

Exceptions: Gotta give a pass to David Bowie's anthemic "Heroes", but not to Jakob Dylan's cover.

4. Rhyming Girl With World

Perhaps the single laziest lyrical choice, and I'll even put it ahead of the "love/above" go-to. While the latter boasts a higher cheese-factor, it's got more potential for versatility. The former is a method of pedestal placement that's high-schoolish. No matter the context of "world" within the couplet, it will suggest some grand-scale perception of the gal in question that could be achieved in so many better ways. In a word, it's settling.

Examples: Far too many to list...tune in to your local pop station.

Exceptions: Almost nonexistent. Generally I can only stomach it when I don't see it coming like a eye-roll inducing punchline. "Say Yes" by Elliott Smith comes to mind...I'm not even crazy about it's application there, but that song's just so damned great!

5. Beach Music

Maybe this isn't so irrational--try having this mindless breed of fauxldies siphoned into your skull for 20 years. You'll hate it too. In fact my feelings about beach music have been documented on this blog before. Read on.

Examples: All Beach Music that ever existed

Exceptions: I would say Van Morrison because for some reason "Brown Eyed Girl" has been adopted as a BM song [what a fitting abbreviation!], but whatever. Take "Brown Eyed Girl", just leave the rest of Van's stuff out of it.

----

In summation, it seems what truly sours me musically is perceived laziness. Lazy topics, lyrics, rhymes, titles, etc. Show me you want it, musicmakers. Kinda like when bloggers resort to list-form posts in lieu of longer comprehensive pieces with transitions and stuff.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Tallest Man On Earth: The Wild Hunt



I don't know what I was doing back in 2008 when Shallow Grave, the debut release of Kristian Mattson, aka The Tallest Man On Earth, was released. Twas a year rife with tuneage, and regretfully some discs must fell through the cracks. Shallow Grave was one of them. I'd read high praise and heard a track here and there; more than enough to pique my interest. But as weeks, months and now years wore on, Kristian's debut was fossilized 'neath strata of newer releases.

Two years later, word of a new release circulated. The inevitable leak bred praise that's usually reserved for the likes of established indie acts at their creative peak. So I nosed around and found The Wild Hunt, Mattson's sophomore effort, and gave it a spin.

I'm already stitching the "Songwriter album of the year" pin to its scout sash. (I'll retroactively dole the award out to Fionn Regan, Bon Iver, and Cass McCombs for 2007-2009, respectively.) Just when I think I'm tiring of the singer-songwriter motif, an album like this comes along sounding so fresh and inspired, even if it's not particularly revolutionary. Mattson's vocals are noticeably Dylanesque, but they're charged with boyish Scandinavian flare instead of Dylan's sleepy-eyed nose-folk. Think Viking Langhorne Slim, pre-decent into the burbling vat of cheese-folk that was 2009's Be Set Free.

Standout track thus far is the vibrant "Burden of Tomorrow", but single "King of Spain" is a royal foot-stompin' good time:

Friday, March 19, 2010

RIP Alex Chilton



Sad, sad news that you've probably already heard: Alex Chilton has died of a heart attack. Chilton is most well-known (although not by name) for two things:
  1. "The Letter", and oldies hit by The Box Tops. Admittedly, I didn't know this was Chilton's band prior to this week's wave of biographical information following his death. But I certainly knew the song. This one time, a bum in Washington, DC sang this for my eighth grade class while we were walking on the National Mall.
  2. Big Star, Chilton's band which famoulsy did "In the Street", a.ka. the theme song to That 70's Show, although it was redone by Cheap Trick for the show.
I can't claim mega-fandom of Chilton or Big Star, but I do own records by and enjoy Big Star, and furthermore, he and his band were a major influence on many of my favorite artists including Wilco, Whiskeytown, and Elliott Smith. The Jayhawks, at times, sound identical to Big Star. The group was incredibly influential to the likes of R.E.M. and the Replacements (any 'Mats fan has air-drummed to "Alex Chilton"). To get an idea of Big Star and Chilton's influence, check out this quote, lifted from Wikipedia who lifted it from Allmusic.com:
Jason Ankeny, music critic for Allmusic, identifies Big Star as "one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll", whose "impact on subsequent generations of indie bands on both sides of the Atlantic is surpassed only by that of the Velvet Underground".
Again, I'm no afficianado but I can certainly attest to Chilton's excellent songwriting and singing ability. This is no deep cut, but it's certainly my favorite Big Star song, one that perfectly captures innocent teenage emfatuation.



Elliott Smith doing a heart-squeezing version:



A Being There-era cover by Wilco:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The first quarter of 2010, brought to you by: The Letter T

Sorry for the lay-off...excessive work got in the way of blogging, as it is wont to do, so I've been dutifully designing in lieu of bountiful blogging. But my pursuit of fresh tunage hasn't waned. If nothing else, my days have been conducive to full-album absorption. Tops among them is Titus Andronicus' The Monitor, Civil-War themed driving rock boasting ragged Westerbergian vocals, J. Mangum's wily psychomelodic treatment, and the broiling angst of Lifted-era Bright Eyes.

But aside from that, who designated Q1 2010 as prime time for T-named bands to crank out material? So far I have new releases from:
  • The Tallest Man On Earth
  • Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
  • Titus Andronicus
  • Toro Y Moi
  • Tunng
I wouldn't consider "The" grounds for eligibility, but it's worth noting that the Drive-By Truckers have a new one out as well.

Look for some more updates soon!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I will be broke in May: BOH to release new album



I'm not big on post-padding news stories, since I could probably throw 3 or 4 up in a day. Our site adheres to a strict "You probably didn't hear it here first!" assumption, so generally speaking we leave breaking news to the big boys.

But this is worthy of attention for two reasons. Not only is Band of Horses a HSW favorite, but their newly announced album is an appropriate addition to the stampede of new releases in the fair month of May. Need I remind you, we'll see new discs from The Hold Steady, the National, Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, the Black Keys and Josh Ritter. And who knows what else might be announced before then!

The new disc is called Infinite Arms which carries on the band's proud tradition of stupid album names. Here's to hoping it carries on their tradition of enjoyable albums, too. BOH, FTW!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Things You Can't Forget Vol. 2: Isis

It was a Saturday night, and Drew, Thomas and I were at a house party at our friend Celia's duplex. It was March, I think, of 2006. Second semester of junior year at U. of South Carolina. My collegiate stint was far enough along that graduation was now more than a vague ghostship on the horizon, yet my perception of it was an unhurried acknowledgment of its existence rather than any sort of broiling anxiety. I felt rooted in my situation, padded between the confidence accrued over two and a half years on campus, and another year of dense, work-intensive semesters ahead. However, that night I felt adrift...

A few weeks before Celia's party, I was toiling on a graphics project, attempting to mount my print on foam board. While paring down a piece of the board, I committed the cardinal sin of Exacto-knife usage: I cut towards my stabilizing hand, not away from it. The blade skidded out of the foam, slid across the ruler and sliced through the right third of my left index finger. The wound was a half an inch long; the flayed chunk of fingertip was only attached along the underside of my finger. If I'd dragged the knife even a half-inch more, I'd have severed the fingertip completely. I screamed some string of unspeakable vulgarity and flung the knife, causing it to lodge itself in the floorboard:



For those of you with a stomach for such things, here's a picture of the fresh wound, which I was able to compose myself enough to document photographically. You'll note I'm actually holding the finger together with my thumb.

I'll never forget what song was on my stereo when this happened: "Isis", by Bob Dylan.

After the incident, I fell into a funk. This was mostly the result of being sidelined musically--in fact, I had to withdraw from a talent show because my fretting hand was virtually useless. But it also had some dulling effect on my overall temperament. I became aware of my impending adulthood, depressed by my failures, and generally sluggish and pitiful. I needed a kick in the ass, someone or something to grab me by the shoulders and just fuckin' shake until the storm cloud dissipated.

The lord works in mysterious ways, and by "the lord" I of course mean Bob Dylan. The same man who soundtracked my infamous self-butchering would also orchestrate the moment at Celia's party that burned off the lingering fog. The party was densely populated, with roughly thirty or so folks huddled in the first floor, laughing and yammering and getting progressively drunker. It was a college pad, to be sure: Unflashy; plastered with posters of musicians and artists; hand-me-down furniture that was aged and wonderful. That night I met my good friend Patrick., a man whose innate ability to analyze music through the written word is something I've long coveted. He and Thomas and I talked music for most of the evening, discussing the merits and flaws of alternative country and why Menomena's new album was so good, among other things. I already felt more relaxed than I had since the accident.

The party was in full swing, thanks in no small part to the brilliant mix Celia had composed for the night, a playlist that was both hip and engaging. She and a few other girls had staked a spot in front of the stereo and were drunkenly frolicking, twirling one another with the utmost agility and grace, so as not to spill a drop of their beverage. The music rolled through a veritable greatest hits of hipster party tracks.

When "Isis" began, I was reminded that it was to the strains of this song that I'd laid waste to my fingertip only weeks before. As it is and was my favorite Dylan song, I feared that it would forever serve as a chilling reminder of that bloodletting. But thanks to the events of that night, the song was repositioned in my memory.



"Isis" and it's slow rhythmic pulse captured the room, and each body in the room moved with each bass note as Dylan evangelically howled his tale of a spontaneous journey, faraway tombs, and the far-reaching gravity of his beloved Isis. I'm not sure if the stereo was cranked when the song started, but it wouldn't surprise me, as it rose above the din in a grand way. The beat injected itself into the atmosphere, made all the more palpable by the extra-large Dylan poster in prominent display on the living room wall. For nearly 7 minutes, that song became the party. It was a moment of such inspired, unified perfection that it seemed choreographed.

The funniest part is I might be the only one in that room who paid any attention to that little slice of the night. Moreover, it might not have resonated with anyone else to a level beyond basic appreciation of the song or the party atmosphere. Yet it's one of my fondest memories from college, so what does it matter if I'm the only one who noticed? If a tree falls in the woods, and I'm the only one around to hear it, then so be it!

To conclude: It's kind of ridiculous that watching a bunch of drunk, white hipsters bounce around to a thirty-year-old song was lifted my spirits. But it was a moment of clarity, a microcosmic reminder that being a pitiful sack of crap is not only unpleasant, but its a waste of valuable time. I suppose it also reinforced the affirming quality of music. When a beloved song architects an indelible moment such as this, it sort of validates one's fandom and obsessions. You can analyze lyrics or chord structures to bits, but nothing trumps that sort of intrinsic response. And such is the inspiration for this feature in the first place.


A photo from the evening. Left to right: Me (w/bandaged finger), Patrick, Drew, Celia, and Thomas.

Another new release in May: The Black Keys



I can't emphasize how fond I am of May. The weather's great, school lets out, the major league baseball season is picking up steam, and I get a birthday card sometimes. Even if I wasn't conscious of the incredible May release schedule, it's a fairly promising month.

But I'll gladly take the new Hold Steady, Broken Social Scene, New Pornographers, National, and Josh Ritter records that'll drop in May, since they're offering. But what's that you say? Another new album of interest?

That's right, everyone's favorite Ohio two piece blues-rock outfit will release Brothers, the follow-up to 2008's Attack and Release. /tracklisted:

01 Everlasting Light
02 Next Girl
03 Tighten Up
04 Howlin' for You
05 She's Long Gone
06 Black Mud
07 The Only One
08 Too Afraid to Love You
09 Ten Cent Pistol
10 Sinister Kid
11 The Go Getter
12 I'm Not the One
13 Unknown Brother
14 Never Gonna Give You Up
15 These Days