Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Tube Amp: July 10

Welcome back to the Tube Amp, our featured Youtube breakdown that tends to go dormant for a month or so at a time. In fact, I meant to write this particular instillation last month, when this video first made its rounds on the web. But my PS3 isn't going to play itself, so my blog duties fell by the wayside. Still, it'll be worth the wait for those of you who haven't seen it. The clip takes us to Beantown for a recent gig by a much-beloved Canadian supergroup (no not that one, the other one). The New Pornographers were between songs when something interesting happened. Something that made Neko angry. And you wouldn't like Neko when she's angry. Beware, grown-up language ensues:

:01 -- Carl Newman on your right, Neko on your left. You know, in case you thought some other ginger-haired female had replaced her.

:20 -- Wait for it...

:22 -- Thunk! Outta nowhere, a projectile strikes Carl's axe.

:25 -- "Who the fuck was that?" asks Neko. Shit's about to go down. "Seriously whoever did that, come up here and I will fucking fight you."

:38 -- Here, Neko is mumbling some pretty intense words, it seems. You can't see her face too well, but what you can see looks stone serious, doesn't it?

:48 -- Attempting to bring some levity to the situation, Carl mentions that it's actually their record.

:49 -- Neko isn't having it, asking "Who did it, cause I will seriously pummel your fucking face in." And she's not done. "I am a piece of shit white trash and I will fuck you up. Don't pull that shit again."

1:10 -- At this point it devolves into non-sensical banter, Newman no doubt attempting to fan away the thick fog of awkward that's hanging heavy. But at least Neko's calmed down!

1:24 -- Nevermind: "I will go to jail, I don't give a shit. I will fuck you up." Then Newman, the good cop, quips, "I will fucking bail her out of jail!"

1:32 -- Neko's calm is what's so unsettling at this point. "I will fight every single fucking person in this room. Seriously, don't fucking pull that shit again."

1:45 -- Then all of a sudden, the skies clear and Neko's all cheery. Apparently her read-headed ire lasts for a solid minute. "It's still good, we can re-sell that!"

In case you're wondering: According to the video description on Youtube, the girl who threw the CD was tossed out of the show, and the disc was gifted to someone in the audience. That's quite a souvenir, I must say.

So remember folks, don't mess with Neko Case because she will fight you. I'd also like to wish a happy birthday to the Tube Amp, which was launched in July of 2009. Granted, there have only been 10 Tube Amp posts (including this one), but I assure you I have completely valid reasons for that. Now if you'll excuse me, MLB The Show 2010 is calling.

More musical lookalikes...

Welcome back for yet another edition of a musical lookalikes, a mindless feature we cobble together every few months.

So guess what? It's baseball season, folks. Of note this year: Lots of no-hitters. They're already calling 2010 "The Year of the Pitcher", although Deadspin alleges that it's really not that different from any other year. At any rate, balls are flying, bats are cracking, and Carlos Zambrano is going apeshit in the Cubs dugout. Ah, summer.

Now, it's already been a great year for baseball as far as I'm concerned. But it's only getting better, as my favorite team the Atlanta Braves are in first place and looking every bit like a contender. So I thought, why not capitalize on their buzz and work some Braves fanboyism into the blog?

I needn't look further than Braves' third baseman and Cooperstown shoo-in Chipper Jones. He isn't having a career year or anything, but he's a leader on a team that would love to win one for outgoing manager Bobby Cox. Chipper bears a striking resemblance to alt-country trailblazer Jay Farrar, whose work with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt would get him on the first ballot for a hypothetical Alternative Country Hall of Fame:

Chin goatee, piercing eyes, arched brows, rounded nose, intense expression, well-manicured sideburns--it's the total package folks. Less likely: Farrar sharing the stage with Tweedy again, or Chipper hitting a stand-up triple?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

HSW Newsflash: Massive Felice Brothers tour announced

One of my favorite bands of the past two years, The Felice Brothers just rolled out plans for an enormous fall tour that will see them traipsing all around the nation, unleashing their certifiably excellent live set on the masses.

As noted supporters of the band--their label's site has quoted our blog!--I'm a bit dismayed that Charleston didn't get a stop this time around. But I'm pretty sure that Greenville date listed below is actually referring to South Carolina despite them listing it as North Carolina. Will confirm that asap for you local folks.

Here are the many, many dates:

Tue 10-Aug - New York, NY - Rocks off Cruise**
Sat 18-Sep - Bristol, VA - Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion
Sun 19-Sep - Nashville, TN - Mercy Lounge
Mon 20-Sep - St Louis, MO - The Old Rock House
Wed 22-Sep - Santa Fe, NM - Santa Fe Brewing Company
Mon 27-Sep - San Diego, CA - Casbah
Wed 29-Sep - Los Angeles, CA Echo
Mon 4-Oct - Arcata, CA - Humboldt State University ***
Tue 5-Oct - Portland, OR - Doug Fir*
Wed 6-Oct - Seattle, WA - Tractor *
Thu 7-Oct - Vancouver, BC - Media Club *
Sat 9-Oct - Salt Lake City, UT - The State Room *
Sun 10-Oct - Denver, CO - Larimer Lounge *
Tue 12-Oct - Omaha, NE - Waiting Room *
Wed 13-Oct - Minneapolis, MN - Triple Rock Social Club*
Thu 14-Oct - Milwaukee, WI - Turner Hall *
Fri 15-Oct - Chicago, IL - Empty Bottle *
Sat 16-Oct - Detroit, MI - Magic Stick *
Mon 18-Oct - Pittsburgh, PA - Mr Smalls *
Tue 19-Oct - Morgantown, WV - 123 Pleasant Street *
Thu 21-Oct - York, PA - Capitol Theater *
Fri 22-Oct - Washington, DC - Rock N Roll Hotel *
Sat 23-Oct - Philadelphia, PA - Johnny Brenda's *
Fri 29-Oct - Pawtucket, RI - Met Cafe *
Sat 30-Oct - Poughkeepsie, NY - Chance *
Sun 31-Oct - Brooklyn, NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg *
Mon 1-Nov - Milford, CT - Daniel Street *
Wed 3-Nov - Charlottesville, VA - Jefferson Theater *
Thu 4-Nov - Raleigh, NC - Kings Barcade *
Fri 5-Nov - Greenville, NC - The Handlebar *
Sat 6-Nov - Atlanta, GA - The Earl *
Mon 8-Nov - Orlando, FL - Social *
Tue 9-Nov - Tallahassee, FL - Club Downunder at FSU *
Wed 10-Nov - New Orleans, LA - One Eyed Jacks *
Fri 12-Nov - Austin, TX - Emo's Lounge *
Sat 13-Nov - Dallas, TX - The Loft *
Sun 14-Nov - Little Rock, AR - Sticky Fingerz Rock-N-Roll Chicken Shack *
Mon 15-Nov - Oxford, MS - Proud Larry's *
Wed 17-Nov - Louisville, KY - Headliners Music Hall *
Thu 18-Nov - Newport, KY - Southgate House *
Fri 19-Nov - Columbus, OH - Rumba Cafe *

*Adam Haworth Stephens (of Two Gallants) support
**Diamond Doves support
***with Justin Towne's Earle
****Admiral Fallow support

Musical Surgery: Conclusion

As we look back on my path of destruction, I'd like to remind you that this entire feature exists solely on a hypothetical plane. None of the advice or suggestions will ever matter in the grand scheme of things. I'm sure if the artists in question saw my amended lists, they'd say "How dare this sniveling blog-jockey suggest he understand my artistic decisions more than the artist himself!" They'd be right to feel that way, even if it isn't the case. I know that every album (worth its salt) is carefully conceived, developed and sequenced, taking into account conceptual factors that I am not privy to. I also don't claim to write off any of the featured albums because of my personal belief that they're a bit overlong.

This isn't about skipping tracks, either, because I rarely ever do that (even those I chose to omit in this feature). This is all just critical analysis, simple as that. Again, it's why hypotheticals are such a wonderful thing. They allow for these sorts of exercises without consequence. I'm not going to delete the struck-down tracks from my iTunes library, and burn updated versions of the CDs in question. I tried to take as objective an approach as I could, but I concede that such a thing isn't really possible. But alas, I thought it sounded like a fun challenge, and it proved to be just that.

It bears mentioning that not all long albums require trimming. Wilco's Being There, Sun Kil Moon's April, the Flaming Lips The Soft Bulletin: All examples of long(ish) albums that I wouldn't dream of changing. There are plenty more.

So thanks for keeping up with this month's The Deeper In feature. As always, feel free to submit your own choices for overlong LPs. Meanwhile, I'll be listening to the new Arcade Fire album which, yes, is pretty damned long.


Albums covered:

Monday, July 26, 2010

Musical Surgery: Brighter Than Creation's Dark by the Drive-By Truckers

The Drive-By Truckers: "Brighter Than Creation's Dark"

The songwriting well of the Drive-By Truckers never really seems to run dry. They've now released 10 studio albums and you get the feeling they've got two or three more in the chamber at any point. I suppose it helps when you have two (and at times, three) primary songwriters contributing to the mix. And not only do they put out a lot of albums, they put out alot of long albums. Most of them register at least 14 songs, topping out at 20 with the much-celebrated double LP Southern Rock Opera. But their ninth album, Brighter Than Creation's Dark, was only one shy of that tally. This was the result of Patterson Hood's desire to create 4 movements, if you will, one represented by each side of the double-vinyl. If you know the songs, you can probably guess where one movement ends and the next begins. However, the album was crammed into a single CD, which means there aren't any intermissions or delays; just one song to the next, 19 times.

So while I wouldn't want to compromise Patterson's vision (nor that of any artist whose album I've covered in this feature), I can at least take a stab at creating one abbreviated version of the record that can be enjoyed continuously outside of its 4-sided context. A version that sheds some of the conceptual turns and wandering tracks, and leaves us with one meaty Truckers album.

The Track List
  1. "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife" - Nice tonesetter here about the tragic murder of indie musician Bryan Harvey.
  2. "3 Dimes Down" - Here's where I differ from the DBT core. I like Mike Cooley songs, I do, but he can be extremely formulaic. For example, Three of his songs on this album adhere to an almost identical chord structure. This would be the only one of the three I'd hang on to.
  3. "The Righteous Path" - One of my favorites here. Patterson really delivers on this album.
  4. "I'm Sorry Huston" - This is the best song Shonna's written for the Truckers, by a mile.
  5. "Perfect Timing" - A solid Mike Cooley entry.
  6. "Daddy Needs a Drink" - Another Patterson keeper, its calm domesticity is a nice complement to some of the bruisers Patterson unleashes on BTCD.
  7. "Self Destructive Zones" - The next two Cooley tracks are anything but essential.
  8. "Bob" - A track about a closeted homosexual living in redneck America, I could never get past the silly musical feel of the song as a whole.
  9. "Home Field Advantage" - Shonna fouls out on this one.
  10. "Opening Act" - I was on the fence here, but at nearly seven minutes, it lingers a bit too long for an already-expansive album.
  11. "Lisa's Birthday" - Just love this tune; it's Cooley doing his best Dwight Yoakum.
  12. "The Man I Shot" - Hood's most gutpunching effort since "Sinkhole", and a definite keeper.
  13. "Purgatory Line" - It's not a bad song, but I cringe hard when Shonna sings "I love you like the dickens". Gotta lose it.
  14. "The Home Front" - Absolutely love "The Home Front", and in losing "Purgatory Line", it makes the perfect come-down from the shellshock of "The Man I Shot".
  15. "Checkout Time in Vegas" - What would a DBT's album be without a Cooley-penned ballad?
  16. "You and Your Crystal Meth" - It's a bit of an overstated message for the album; I think Patterson could have saved this one for Murdering Oscar.
  17. "Goode's Field Road" - A nice dirty Southern gothic creeper, it's a hearty late-album story song that the DBTs do so well.
  18. "A Ghost to Most" - Just as every DBT's album needs a Cooley-penned ballad, it also needs a Cooley-penned upbeat anthem ("Zip City", "Marry Me", etc.) Add this one to the list.
  19. "Monument Valley" - No problem with the album-closer, which ends just when you think a slow-dance is about to break out.
HSW's Amended List
  1. "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife"
  2. "3 Dimes Down"
  3. "The Righteous Path"
  4. "I'm Sorry Huston"
  5. "Perfect Timing"
  6. "Daddy Needs a Drink"
  7. "Lisa's Birthday"
  8. "The Man I Shot"
  9. "Purgatory Line"
  10. "The Home Front"
  11. "Checkout Time in Vegas"
  12. "Goode's Field Road"
  13. "A Ghost to Most"
  14. "Monument Valley"
My diagnosis? Brighter Than Creations Dark could--like all of us, really--stand to lose a bit around the midsection. Perhaps it's the natural inclination of the listener to focus more on either end of a particularly sprawling album. Whatever the case may be, I feel that Brighter Than Creation's Dark starts strong, but strays a bit before ending nicely.

Still, don't feel like I'm shortchanging the Alabamian asswhoopers, because whats left is a 14-song run even after my edits. But I stand by my assertion that we really don't need three Cooley with identical chord-structures, nor do we need two mehxcellent Shonna Tucker contributions. I would like to reiterate that her song "I'm Sorry Huston" might be one of the best songs from any of the Truckers last three LPs, and she deserves a ton of credit for her songwriting chops.

On Jay Bennett's final album

Listen to Jay Bennett's posthumously released album, Kicking at the Perfumed Air, and you'll hear traces of what made early Wilco such a rich listening experience. The songs are often instrument-heavy, but Bennett was such a skilled choreographer of sounds that it seems neither overwhelming nor rigid. By extension, you'll also see what Wilco's last few efforts have lacked: His attention to detail, his proclivity for gracefully dressing songs with noise (both melodic and otherwise), his talent for creating depth through production. Look no further than "Mirror Ball", which dates back to the Wilco era and was partly recorded in Wilco's Loft at that time. In my opinion it's the best track on the album by some distance; not to say there aren't some other gems that make it an enjoyable listen.

It's worth nothing that Jay's voice wasn't brilliant--he was probably be the first to admit it. His vocals probably weren't strong enough on their own to carry an act, and this might have been what was holding Jay back from a successful solo career. That said: There are some pretty affecting vocal turns on the album. "Twice A Year" is an aching mid-tempo ballad which is perfectly complemented by Jay's weathered, tobacco-scarred voice. The organic tangibility that 2006's The Magnificent Defeat lacked is present in droves on Kicking.

More than anything, Kicking The Perfumed Air confirms that we lost an immense talent last year. Jay was as slick a musician, arranger, and producer as there was, and we can only hope his final years were more fulfilling than we might bed led to believe. Despite his ousting from Wilco and his inability to reclaim much national attention, Bennett earned a living doing what he loved. It's more than a lot of us can say.

Download the album here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

July 21, 2010: Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse

w/Morning Teleportation
The Music Farm (Charleston, SC)
July 20, 2010

The buzz was palpable for this one. In the weeks leading up Modest Mouse's stop in Charleston, I think I talked to more people who couldn't find tickets than people who were going. Scalpers were littering Craigslist, offering up tickets for hundreds of dollars to anyone desperate enough to shell it out. Indeed, the Music Farm was packed to the gills on Tuesday, bodies lining all the balconies and pressed up against the back walls. The main pit was a stew of writhing, sweaty humanity, all aslosh with anticipation of one of its generations' most celebrated acts.

I made the gig about ten minutes before the band took the stage. Missing the opening act isn't something I make a habit of, but tonight it was justified by the brutal temperature inside the venue. I claimed the first bit of daylight I saw in the pit--a spot about 13 heads from the stage, nothing spectacular. But as chance would have it, I was on a line with fiery frontman Isaac Brock.

Anyone who knows Modest Mouse equates their sound with certain musical quirks: Metallic harmonics, wiggly notes, quasi-disco beats, explosive codas, trippy reverb/delay, frenzied violin pulls. But most prominently, the band is defined by Isaac Brock's unique singing style. It's a vaguely melodic shout that can go from a throaty bark to a tinny whimper in a single breath. He spits his lyrics with ravenous force, his head shaking like a jackal tearing off a hunk of flesh. Lyrics like "Aw, fuck it I guess we lost," from "Parting of the Sensory" were roared with such fervor that it could have been audible blocks away. Incidentally, "Parting" took Song of the Night honors in my book--not surprising since I've gone on record as saying it's a favorite of mine.

On to the songs: First of all, I confess that my knowledge of Modest Mouse's catalog ranges from keen to non-existent, mostly falling somewhere in the middle. I hold The Moon and Antarctica in the highest regard, and from there it gets a bit patchier. What I'm getting at here is this wasn't one of those shows where I could identify most songs from the onset. Some I figured out when the chorus rolled around; some I didn't know at all. But that didn't hinder my appreciation of the well-rounded setlist. We heard offerings from each of their last four LPs, including four from 2007's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.

Highlights for me were the aforementioned "Parting of the Sensory", as well as all three TM&A offerings. "Paper Thin Walls" followed by "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" was a blistering close to the main set, and the opening strains "Gravity Rides Everything" were maniacally greeted. How I longed to hear "Dark Center of the Universe" or "Third Planet", but unfortunately it wasn't to be. Radio hits "Dashboard" and "Float On" were played, and not even the most snobbish fan could fight back the urge to singing along. It was nice to hear some Lonesome Crowded West stuff too, although it's been ages since I've given that album any attention. Time for a revisit!

The band was tight and loud, the dual-drummer attack no doubt playing a part. The thudding bass drums probably shook liquor bottles in bars within a block radius. But as raucous as they were, I do think it seemed a bit routine. Their routine, mind you, is pretty damned impressive. But still, I couldn't help but think that was just another night on the job for Isaac and crew. He reminded me of a skilled artisan or something, an expert at a demanding craft who by now finds little challenge in doing something most others aren't capable of. There was minimal banter, and not a lot of downtime between songs. It might have bothered me if I'd seen the band before, but as it stands, it was really more of an observation than anything.

The band closed with "Spitting Venom", the standout track from We Were Dead that clocks in at eight minutes plus. I wandered the five blocks to my car with a sweat-soaked shirt and ears full of tinnitus; sure signs of a successful rock show experience. Sun Kil Moon's new album, Admiral Fell Promises, soundtracked my ride home, the scant classical guitar-plucked ballads providing an (appropriate) contrast to the raging rock show I'd just been privy to. Did the performance exceed my expectations? I'm not sure, really. I had expectations, and they were high--so if nothing else, they were met. But I will say this: I thought my takeaway from the night would lean more towards "At least I can say I saw them" than it would "That was an unarguably fantastic performance." Thankfully, I can now claim both.

Here's the setlist and a few more photos...I never got close enough to get anything spectacular, unfortunately.

Satin In A Coffin
Gravity Rides Everything
Here's To Now
Trailer Trash > Perpetual Motion Machine (Tease)
Dance Hall
The View
Interstate 8
Fire It Up
Doin' The Cockroach
Parting Of The Sensory
Here It Comes
Satellite Skin
Float On
Paper Thin Walls
Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes

Never Ending Math Equation
Out Of Gas
Spitting Venom

Other Music Farm reviews:
Andrew Bird

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Musical Surgery: Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album) by Wilco

Wilco: Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album)

Wilco had the most impressive four-album run of any artist in my collection (perhaps rivaled only by its parent band, Uncle Tupelo). From 1996's Being There to 2004's A Ghost Is Born, they established themselves as an act standing at the vanguard of American indie rock. Additionally, their soap-operatic storyline made them an interesting act to follow. At times, members were dropped like old parts and replaced with shiny new ones (Kotche for Coomer, Bach for Johnston). The band weathered a contentious relationship with its label until the bottom fell out in 2001. Jeff Tweedy spent time in drug rehab to kick painkillers. But after that, the skies cleared for a band who'd paid its dues. The line-up fell into place and hasn't changed since. They now routinely sell out world tours and have been anointed 'indie rock royalty' by most alternative media.

And since the tumult subsided, the band has released two studio LPs. 2007's Sky Blue Sky was a worthy effort, showcasing the band's unadorned side. But it wasn't consistent, weakened by too many lyrical stretches and a few tracks that didn't quite belong. Last year's Wilco (the Album) continued the trend: It featured some strong tracks but the flow was upset by few adult-contempo whiffs that were clearly not Wilco's strongest work (I'm looking at you, "Sonny Feeling" and "You And I").

I don't really consider any one of their albums overinflated. Sure, both SBS and W(TA) could have used some downsizing, but the results wouldn't fill a record. They'd be more like half-records. So then I thought, "Hey, two half-records is a whole record!" Swelling with pride, I set into compressing the two half albums into one latter-era classic.

The Track List
Wilco: Sky Blue Sky
  1. "Either Way" – I'd do away with "Either Way", which is a track I like but it seems a bit too harmless to lead off a Wilco record.
  2. "You Are My Face" – Perhaps the best Wilco song from either of the last two albums, it stays.
  3. "Impossible Germany" - It's not too thought-provoking, but it's fascinating enough lyrically and musically to find its way on an album.
  4. "Sky Blue Sky" – Hang on to this one, a a latter day "Far Far Away" that features that hushed, timeworn vocal delivery that Tweedy is unfortunately abandoning as of late.
  5. "Side with the Seeds" – Another new classic, so to speak.
  6. "Shake It Off" – Here's a song I often overlook, but it has that somewhat deviant quality that the band wears so well.
  7. "Please Be Patient with Me" – I'd hang on to it. It's got an off-ballast feel to it, a defining trait of the best Wilco tracks.
  8. "Hate It Here" – I'd lose this one quicker than a you can say "Tweedy on a Tractor".
  9. "Leave Me (Like You Found Me)" – This one's a little too warm and fuzzy. I'd save it for the inevitable Tweedy solo album.
  10. "Walken" – I like "Walken" in its live form, but I'd dismiss it for being too "aw-shucks" for the band's sake. I realize how unfair and arbitrary that must seem, but I do have an endgame here!
  11. "What Light" – I find this one a little trite, and thus I'd strike it.
  12. "On and On and On" - I seem to remember hearing this one was written for Tweedy's father, on the topic of his mother's death. With that in mind I feel like a heel for suggesting its omission; but again, that's why we're dealing in hypotheticals.
Wilco: Wilco (The Album)
  1. "Wilco (The Song)" – I like this song more than many fans I've talked to, but I'd probably omit it in the interest of downplaying the self-referential aspect.
  2. "Deeper Down" - Quality track, I'd hang on to it even if it didn't really land in a live setting.
  3. "One Wing" – Here's a song I feel could have benefited immensely from Jay Bennett's arrangement; I feel he would have achieved a less polished and more ominous aesthetic. Still, it's a good enough song to warrant keeping.
  4. "Bull Black Nova" – Definite keeper, they nailed the feeling of unraveling nerves of a fleeing killer.
  5. "You and I" – An unfortunately squandered opportunity to make use of Feist's versatile vocal ability, it would be left on the cutting room floor.
  6. "You Never Know" – I know it was Wilco's feelgood hit from this album, but I couldn't get into it. Too much of a George Harrison lift. Leaving it off.
  7. "Country Disappeared" – One of the best songs on the album, deserves its spot.
  8. "Solitaire" – Great song, and it's a shame I tend to forget about it.
  9. "I'll Fight" – I think the song could use some whittling as far as the instrumentation is concerned. It could have easily resembled something along the lines of "How to Fight Loneliness" without the irritating organ hits throughout. But overall it's a well-crafted tune that makes the cut.
  10. "Sonny Feeling" – Corny, overblown, gone.
  11. "Everlasting Everything" - Unfortunately, I think this is another one that's a little too overdone in the production department for its own good. I especially don't care for the chorus here.
Of course, the resulting hybrid album would require some resequencing. Here we go:

HSW's Amended List:
  1. "You Are My Face"
  2. "Deeper Down"
  3. "Side With the Seeds"
  4. "Impossible Germany"
  5. "Sky Blue Sky"
  6. "Bull Black Nova"
  7. "One Wing"
  8. "Please Be Patient With Me"
  9. "Shake it Off"
  10. "Country Disappeared"
  11. "I'll Fight"
  12. "Solitaire"
Were such a marriage to occur, there would be overarching issues that need addressing, such as remastering and streamlining production and arrangements. But from a base, structure-of-song approach, I think the above focuses on the strongest qualities of post-Bennett Wilco. Simultaneously, it strips them of the dad-rock histrionics that have served as a go-to for detractors and disgruntled fans alike. In summation, it seems my approach was to lose the beaming feelgood songs and only retain the tracks that are unsettling and/or contemplative. I'm sorry, Wilco, but you can't release off-kilter albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born and then just expect me to embrace "Hate It Here".

Up Next: Dimming the Truckers' Brightness...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

There's regional doin's a happenin'!

(If anyone got that Simpsons reference, kudos to you)

It's no secret that this blog originated in the American southeast, so we tend give a bit more attention to news with regional significance. To wit: Lots of Carolina-centric activity was announced today, in the form of three major players as far as my record collection is concerned.

First on the agenda, The Hold Steady, who announced a fall tour that includes the Holy City. Craig and crew will grace the stage of the Music Farm on September 27th. Noteworthy: The last time they played Charleston, it was the much smaller Pour House that served as the venue. Kudos to the Hold Steady for the vertical move, and may they decide to play Boys and Girls In America from start to finish. Not that I'll mind hearing some of the winners from Heaven Is Whenever.

Speaking of show announcements, Band of Horses finally threw a bone to their adopted hometown. Like the Hold Steady, they'll play a fall date in Charleston (October 29th), and like the Hold Steady, they'll play a larger venue than at past gigs. BOH will play the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, which holds about 2,500 people. I wasn't crazy about Infinite Arms, but the prospect of hearing "First Song" and "Funeral" is all I need to buy a ticket.

The last band I saw in the NCPAC was the Avett Brothers
. Man, they know how to bring it. If only I could catch their live show every night! Well now, I sort of half-assedly can. Live: Volume 3 will drop in October, both on CD and DVD. They'll catalog the boys' triumphant Charlotte performance at the Bojangles Colosseum, which by all accounts was out of this world great. Incidentally, the Avetts will be playing three nights in Myrtle Beach in August--three nights I'll not be privy to, due to a previous planned vacation.

So, justifiably, I'm pretty giddy today. Hope those of you in my neck of the woods can make it out to one or both of those gigs, and get your hands on that Avetts swag.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

HSW Newsflash: Help Phosphorescent

UPDATE: The van and gear have been recovered! So disregard all the stuff about donating, but don't disregard the "buy the record" part, because it's really good.


I'm not naive; I know this isn't a hotbed of internet activity, no cluttered vein of web traffic. But when it comes to a story like this, any amount of exposure helps.

Phosphorescent, the alt-country act whose album Here's to Taking It Easy was named our top album of the first half of 2010, was recently the victim of robbery. Thieves made off with the band's van, containing $40,000 worth of gear. This included some really impressive guitars, including a 1955 Gibson ES-125 Hollowbody Electric, which ain't exactly inexpensive.

Just plain sucks for the band, who was just kicking off its national tour when this happened. They've set up a Paypal account where fans can donate a few bucks to help the boys replace some equipment. They're also keeping an eye on local Craigslist postings hoping to spot their gear.

So buy the album, throw some cash in the Paypal account, and if you're in the Northeast, have a look at your local Craigslist and see if anything looks fishy.

Musical Surgery: Cold Roses by Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Ryan Adams: Cold Roses

2004 was an era of dormancy for Ryan Adams. Recovering from the fractured wrist sustained during a stage fall in early 2004, Adams went off the radar for a while. In those archaic times devoid of Facebook status and twitter updates, fans were left to wonder: Where is Ryan? For months and months, fans didn't hear a peep from the usually over-communicative songsmith. Finally, a tour sprung up in late summer/fall of 2004, featuring his new band, "The Cardinals". A few months after the tour, fans received a curious e-mail from Lost Highway Records. It linked to a flash page that displayed a trio of messages, announcing each of Ryan's three upcoming 2005 releases. First on the list: Cold Roses.

In my introduction to this feature, I mentioned that the initial reaction to lengthy track lists and double albums is usually "Awesome! 22 songs!", which is soon followed by "Skip...skip...skip". But with Cold Roses, it's not so much that there are outright skippers. Maybe a few. The real failure is it could have been Ryan's finest LP by some distance, were it not for a few good but not great tracks that seem tacked on. But such is Ryan Adams, a man whose always been guilty of overstuffing his LPs. Incidentally, I'm surprised it took him this long to release a double album. So here's what should have happened: The album should have been stripped of the "eh, why not" tracks and compressed into one LP (which could have been done anyway).

The Track List:

Disc 1:
  1. "Magnolia Mountain" -- A no-brainer, maybe the best track Ryan released in 2005.
  2. "Sweet Illusions" -- Another keeper, and I'm proud to say I heard this live in Atlanta in 2004 the first time it was ever played.
  3. "Meadowlake Street" -- Another beauty that deserves its spot.
  4. "When Will You Come Back Home" -- While it isn't the most original thing he's done, it nicely re-centers the album after the cathartic coda of "Meadowlake Street".
  5. "Beautiful Sorta" -- I'd lose "Beautiful Sorta". It's actually a great song, but I don't think it aligns with the aesthetic of Cold Roses. If only we could get an entire album in the style of "Beautiful Sorta"...
  6. "Now That You're Gone" -- The album's first true ballad, it stays. Also played at that Atlanta show.
  7. "Cherry Lane" -- This might be a sentimental pick, but I'd hang on to it. It's a nice upbeat turn after the sorrowful "Now That You're Gone".
  8. "Mockingbird" -- Ryan's Greatful Dead worship shines bright on this one, but it's worth hanging on to nonetheless.
  9. "How Do You Keep Love Alive" -- This pains me -- but I'd lose it. I don't know if there will be another song over the course of this entire feature that'll be harder to dismiss. Whether it's the song's production or Ryan's singing style, it just seems stylistically removed from the rest of the wheelhouse tracks. It definitely deserves a prominent spot on an album; I just don't know if it's Cold Roses.
Disc 2:
  1. "Easy Plateau" -- In a lot of ways, this song embodies the Cold Roses sound to me.
  2. "Let It Ride" -- A perfect single, and perfectly placed on the album.
  3. "Rosebud" -- Gone. It's a tribute to Jerry Garcia's guitar...and even if it wasn't, it's the most skip-worthy song on Cold Roses.
  4. "Cold Roses" -- As the title track, it's got to stay, right? I might shake its order up, maybe throw it between "Mockingbird" and "Easy Plateau", since those Deadish jams might run together a bit without some boisterous relief.
  5. "If I Am a Stranger" -- Maybe the least Dead-inspired track, but it's a single-worthy track that's worth hanging on to.
  6. "Dance All Night" -- As a song I love it, but I'd lose "Dance All Night" for the following reasons: It was written several years before Cold Roses was released and it's almost identical to "Angelena", an Adams relic from the unreleased 48 Hours. While neither of these reasons disqualify the song, I still feel like it's inessential to the album.
  7. "Blossom" -- A warm little song that feeds nicely into "Life Is Beautiful", but it's not a great achievement in songwriting, and definitely one of the weaker tracks. Lose it.
  8. "Life Is Beautiful" -- When I first heard Cold Roses, this was one of my favorite tracks. But like "Beautiful Sorta", it almost seems alien to the Cold Roses aesthetic. I think "If I Am a Stranger" would be a better penultimate track.
  9. "Friends" -- I'm not sure there could have been a more perfect ending to Cold Roses. It's an update of the unreleased "For Beth", and it'll remind you of that summer sunset that stretches across the liner notes.
HSW's Amended List:
  1. "Magnolia Mountain"
  2. "Sweet Illusions"
  3. "Meadowlake Street"
  4. "When Will You Come Back Home"
  5. "Now That You're Gone"
  6. "Cherry Lane"
  7. "Mockingbird"
  8. "Cold Roses"
  9. "Easy Plateau"
  10. "Let It Ride"
  11. "If I Am a Stranger"
  12. "Friends"
Downsizing Cold Roses proved much more difficult than the first two albums in this series. Besides "Rosebud", there were fewer blatant outliers, and I could almost hear the scoffs with each track I dismissed. Sure, I believe my amended tracklist might have initially made for a better overall record, but at this point I wouldn't want to hear it without the likes of "How Do you Keep Love Alive" and "Life Is Beautiful". That's why hypothetical situations are a wonderful thing--no consequences! Still, that's the difference between Ryan Adams and some of the other artists in question. Their misses are just that, while his throwaway tracks could be scraped together to form a satisfying LP.

Up Next: Sky Blue Sky (The Album)...

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Musical Surgery: Mule Variations by Tom Waits

Tom Waits: Mule Variations

I recently finished Barney Hoskyns' unauthorized Tom Waits biography, Low Side of the Road. In general, Hoskyns is critical of Waits' later work, preferring the skeebopping jazzbo stuff to the Frank trilogy of the 80's or the junkyard folk albums of the last two decades. I read more than a dash of bitterness into his analysis--Hoskyns is a Waits-camp pariah, one of many with whom Waits has disassociated himself through the years. So I chose to ignore his incessant promulgation of 1977's Foreign Affairs as Waits' finest moment, despite its universal recognition as one of his most mediocre efforts. I shrugged off his sour take on Waits' Glitter and Doom tour stop in London, which by most accounts was a triumph (I know the Atlanta show was).

But amidst the harsh editorial attack, I had to agree with a few assessments, most prominently this: Mule Variations is too damned long. At sixteen songs and roughly 70 minutes, it's a sprawling album. But those statistics aren't off-putting on their own. It's Waits' penchant for repetitious, experimental tracks that weakens the album. And I have no problem with his writing, recording, and releasing these sorts of tracks. But slotted in among Mule Varations' twisted Americana cuts, they seem out of place, like skateboarders in the Wild West or something. Of course, that's just the sort of ill-fitting juxtaposition that likely resonates with Tom Waits, but I still say it harms the album's aesthetic. Let's go through the tracks and see what works and what doesn't:

The Track List:
  1. "Big in Japan" - A rare miss for an opening track, I don't think "Big in Japan" lends much to the album from a thematic sense. It's prototypical James Brown funk, and Waits' vocal delivery that becomes increasingly nasal throughout the track. The lyrics aren't especially interesting or creative, and seem to make light of the dubious honor of finding success with a Japanese audience despite lacking a certain je ne sais quoi that it takes to thrive in western markets. I'd have expected it to see it on the "Brawlers" disc of Orphans before seeing it on Waits' finest latter-day release.
  2. "Lowside of the Road" - Probably should have been the opening track, reminiscent of the sinister establishing-act "Underground" from Swordfishtrombones.
  3. "Hold On" - Would you omit a Grammy-nominated track? Not in this case, anyway.
  4. "Get Behind the Mule" - Another of Waits' dark-folk turns, definitely keeping it.
  5. "House Where Nobody Lives" - A bluesy, major-chord ballad with a message that resonates, it surely belongs.
  6. "Cold Water" - No doubt about it, the hobo anthem "Cold Water" stays.
  7. "Pony" - A soothing, hobo-centric complement to "Cold Water", one of Waits' more throat-lump inducers; surely a keeper.
  8. "What's He Building?" - Like "Big in Japan", I'd have expected this eerily-delivered poem to appear on Orphans. And yet, I wouldn't strike it from Mule Variations. It lends the album some character, an anachronistic foil to the blood and dust aesthetic that dominates otherwise.
  9. "Black Market Baby" - To me, the album's weakest song. It's a loping, baleful dirge with OK-at-best lyrics. It often feels like an afterthought, a second-rate "Clap Hands", and at five minutes, seems interminable. Most would be lucky to write a tune like this; for Tom, it's a throwaway.
  10. "Eyeball Kid" - I get the feeling it's one of Tom's own favorites; I'm on the fence with keeping it. A song about a freak isn't out of place on the album, but it certainly favors the 'experimental' end of the spectrum. Overall, my edits to the album favor the faint-glowing ballads in lieu of the hyperactive romps; therefore, I'd cage "Eyeball Kid".
  11. "Picture in a Frame" - Nothing wrong with this sweet little number.
  12. "Chocolate Jesus" - Not my favorite Waits song, but I'd keep it for the same reason I nixed "Eyeball Kid"; it's nicely restrained, quirky but menacing, and provides the slight mood-uptick that the album's latter half needs.
  13. "Georgia Lee" - A heart-wrenching murder-ballad, perfectly in line with the morbid themes that continue throughout the course of Mule Variations.
  14. "Filipino Box Spring Hog" - Wouldn't waste a second kicking this hog to the curb. It's an entertaining composition, but a bit too goofy to warrant a spot on the album.
  15. "Take It with Me" - One of Waits' most tender ballads, it's not going anywhere.
  16. "Come On Up to the House" - In his assessment of the album, Hoskyns deemed "Come On Up to the House" to be superfluous. How any true Waits fan could think the song is anything but an ideal ending to the album is mindboggling.
HSW's Amended List:
  1. "Lowside of the Road"
  2. "Hold On"
  3. "Get Behind the Mule"
  4. "House Where Nobody Lives"
  5. "Cold Water"
  6. "Pony"
  7. "What's He Building?"
  8. "Picture in a Frame"
  9. "Chocolate Jesus"
  10. "Georgia Lee"
  11. "Take It with Me"
  12. "Come On Up to the House"

As I have it here, the album would omit most of the experimental stuff and leave the listener with more doom than glitter. Heavy on balladry, there's a bit of optimism intermingling with the wounded story-song archetype that reigns supreme. This provides some satisfying contrast without wandering too far into bizarro-land.

You may have noticed that thus far, both overhauls resulted in twelve-track albums. While this is largely coincidental, I do think twelve tracks is a comfortable tally for an album. The artist isn't spread thin, nor does the listener feel shortchanged. There's adequate opportunity for thematic arcs to rise and fall, and generally the dozen-songer lends itself to palpable opening and closing movements. Will the remaining four albums of interest land at twelve tracks as well? Stay tuned and find out.

Up next: A bouquet of roses in need of pruning...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Musical Surgery: Four Thieves Gone by the Avett Brothers

The Avett Bros: Four Thieves Gone

Some would say Four Thieves Gone was the last hurrah for the early-era Avett Brothers; that is, the unhinged, sweaty, hollering purveyors of punk-grass beloved in bars and tiny rock clubs throughout the southeast. The next year, they'd deliver Emotionalism, the band's finest album to date, but one far more polished and reined-in than anything we'd heard before. This trend would continue in a big way with 2009's I and Love and You, their major label debut.

But Four Thieves Gone, like its predecessors, was self-recorded, loose, and gritty. And like its predecessors, it was longer than it should have been. The Avetts are immensely talented songwriters, but their albums have a tendency to wander and Four Thieves Gone is no exception.

Were I tasked with editing it, I would hardly touch the first half. But towards the end, it's burdened by throwaways and an anticlimactic finale in the form of the forgettable titular tune and some needless hidden tracks. Look, it's a 17-song album even without the hidden stuff. It's hard to argue that some addition by subtraction wouldn't have done wonders for the Avetts in this case. Let's take a look:

The Track List:
  1. "Talk on Indolence" - No question; perhaps the Avetts' flaghsip song
  2. "Pretty Girl from Feltre" - I love the song, but I'm sort of torn on keeping it. I think "Colorshow" would do a better job at maintaining the pace of the album, but "Feltre" is one of the band's more striking, subtle compositions. Let's keep it.
  3. "Colorshow" - Another surefire keeper.
  4. "Distraction #74" - And another.
  5. "Sixteen in July" - Keeping it, but I'd swap it with "Distraction" to allow for the mind to settle a bit after the stormy finale of "Colorshow".
  6. "Left on Laura, Left on Lisa" - No doubt, keeper.
  7. "A Lover Like You" - It pains me to say that I'd lose this one, and in no way is it due to the song's quality, or any lack of it. It's an excellent mid-tempo love song; but I feel like it's too much of a thematic deviation amidst the "Left On Laura", "Pretend Love", and "Matrimony". It would have carried over nicely to Emotionalism.
  8. "Pretend Love" - Keeping this scathing little beauty.
  9. "Matrimony" - Definite keeper.
  10. "The Lowering: A Sad Day in Greenville Town" - Closing out the mid-album arc of pained post-relationship songs, it's not going anywhere.
  11. "The Fall" - A much-needed upper at this point; keeping it.
  12. "Dancing Daze" - I'd lose "Dancing Daze" in a heartbeat, due in no small part to the guest vocals by Paleface.
  13. "Famous Flower of Manhattan" - Keeping it. I think it's a perfect penultimate track, the last ballad before the rousing conclusion.
  14. "40 East" - I really like "40 East", but I think I would have saved it for an EP, or a future album.
  15. "Gimmeakiss" - I'd lose it; just a little too sloppy and haphazard for its own good.
  16. "Denouncing November Blue (Uneasy Writer)" - This should have been the album closer, which means...
  17. "Four Thieves Gone" - One more more gone...
  18. "The Fall" (hidden track) - I'd lose both the hidden tracks.
  19. "Honeycutt" (hidden track) - See above.
HSW's Amended List:
  1. "Talk on Indolence"
  2. "Pretty Girl From Feltre"
  3. "Colorshow"
  4. "Sixteen In July"
  5. "Distraction #74"
  6. "Left On Laura, Left on Lisa"
  7. "Pretend Love"
  8. "Matrimony"
  9. "The Lowering"
  10. "The Fall"
  11. "Famous Flower of Manhattan"
  12. "Denouncing November Blue"
Here we have a dozen strong tunes, attacking the topic of post-relationship reflection in a variety of styles: Angsty, profound, bitter, tongue-in-cheek, wily. It'd be at least 15 minutes shorter, too. Of course, such a makeover would disrupt the carefree vibe of the album, which is part of the reason it's so beloved by core fanbase in the first place. While I maintain that the above would have yielded a better album experience, I guess it's worth considering: Do we want an Avett Brothers album that would omit a song like "Dancing Daze" because it's too clunky and wild? If so, then they released an album last year that you might be interested in.

Up next: Every mule could use some variation...

The Deeper In: Musical Surgery

Above: Creepiest feature banner image ever

When an album's release is initially announced, sometimes we're greeted with a track list of sixteen, seventeen songs. First reaction? "Awesome! I love (said artist) so the more songs, the merrier." More rational and usually the correct reaction: "This record is far too long for its own good."

I understand it, from a musician's perspective. We bust our asses recording a full song, meticulously overdubbing and mixing it to perfection. They're our children, really. And it's really, really hard to tell one of those children, "Sorry, you're not going with the others." At least I assume it would be if I ever got off my ass and recorded a full album. But I digress...

But sometimes, good songs just don't fit. Look at Radiohead: They managed to leave fucking "Pyramid Song" off of Kid A, despite going on record as saying it's the best song they've done. But they realized its lush strings and dense arrangement wouldn't work on a spacious, ambient album like Kid A.

I wonder what other albums could benefited from similar restraint. So I thought of a few. Then I thought, "Hey, I have a blog--why not write about those albums." So I did. And thus provides us with this month's The Deeper In feature. I'll pull on my latex gloves, sterilize my scalpel, and do a little hypothetical surgery on six albums that I believe could stand to trim down a bit.

I'd like to underscore the notion that this doesn't just mean dismissing the throwaway tracks. It means considering elements like sequencing, thematic appropriateness, and things of that nature. I'm sure I'll sometimes feel like a high school coach who has to cut a player he's fond of, for reasons that will benefit the team as a whole. Hopefully the track will use it as incentive, and one day thank me for my stern treatment.

Anyhow, keep an eye out over the course of the month. First feature should go up tomorrow.