Thursday, August 09, 2007
I had totally forgotten that My Brightest Diamond was coming up, so Dan and I made a last minute decision to head down to the Grog Shop on Tuesday night to see the show.
While waiting outside, being serenaded with flaccid Christian rock from across the street, an SUV pulls up and this character wearing very light white pants and a white shirt gets out. He started frantically unpacking and bringing musical instruments thrift-store oddities (old TVs, odd cardboard creations, etc) and as he walks past us (there's no back loading door to the Grog Shop) we see that he's painted some sort of dark tears on the sides of his face. It turns out this was the opener, and seeing as it was less than an hour 'till the show was scheduled to start, he seemed to be late. Assisted by a young man who's shirt merely said "Shirt" and a girl we would learn was the drummer he sort of launched into a drama bomb, yelling at the girl that "you know, this isn't a race or anything, there's no need to run".
The Grog Shop is more of a club atmosphere than a larger venue such as the Agora or even the Beachland Ballroom. The stage for this event was a triangular setup in one corner and while visibility isn't very good behind the front rows, there probably isn't a bad sounding spot in the place.
Tight pants guy, whose name was Nicholas something or other played an opening set that was to say the least, fascinatingly entertaining for all of the wrong reasons. It was not bad...No, he is clearly a talented chap...It was just so immensely pretentious and overwrought that it could only be funny. His music was a sort of melding of goth, emo, some cabaret, and the vocal style of Coheed and Cambria. The saving grace was that his main instrument was the keyboard with some organ on the side, assisted by his cute drummer. Had he been the type to emo out with loud guitar shreding, it would have been horrid, but the way it came out, it was merely overwrought. At various points, he tore at his shirt and illuminated his face with a flashlight as if he was puring water over his head. Dude, I hope you're really not that twisted. Whatever else he lacked, he certainly played with emotion, banging at the keys as if he were in the party scene in Amadeus. At the end of the set, for some reason, he passed a cardboard cutout of the sun and an American flag around the crowd for some reason, which completed the pomposity. Nicholas/pants guy showed up with an immense amount of video equipment accompanied by over-serious looking video guys, all of which promptly disappeared after his set. I'm sure this will all show up on Myspace or something.
After that was over, Dan and I were treated to the excellent sounds of My Brightest Diamond, the reason we came. Shara Worden came out alone, explaining that sometimes she tours with a backing band and sometimes she works alone. I didn't have a problem with this because with fewer sounds going on, it was easier to hear her voice, which is an instrument of the utmost beauty. She had no guitar tech...She didn't even have someone running her merch table (more on that later), it was just her and some guitars.
Her set was a good mixture of material from her album last year, Bring Me The Workhorse, and other material from Edith Piaf, a song based on an opera by Maurice Ravel (this one, I think), and some other stuff in French that was enchanting. Songs from the album included Golden Star, Disappear (during which she had an entertaining episode with a hiccup) and the one I really wanted to hear, Something of an End. I had been waiting all day to hear those telephone trills.
Her on-stage presence was very interesting...Sort of a cute, exotic, very peculiar thing that was a nice balance to some of the melancholy present in some of her work. My only complaints about her set were that it could have been longer (of course, sets can always be longer :)) and it seemed like only about half the crowd was paying attention to her playing...There was a lot of noise in the back, which was annoying given the softness and detail in her singing.
Last was the main act, Rasputina...I have to admit, I did no research and basically had no clue who they were. I was fascinated to find out that they're a cello rock trio that seems to bridge freak folk and alternative rock. There are two women on cellos (that night wearing amazon warrior garb) which they can turn electric and one man on drums. They asked everyone to sit, which improved viability, but meant that I spent much of their set sitting in a puddle of some unidentified alcoholic substance.
Rasputina's music was immensely creative and highly humorous. I've long known that adding classical instruments to rock is a sure fire way to make you're music 200% cooler. I tend to appreciate bands that can rock out without guitars, and the moment I realized those shredding sounds are coming from an electric cello it blew me away. Later at home, when I listened to some of the music I had downloaded, I realized that on their records you can't tell how seriously they're taking this and it feels a little pretentious, but live, there's a certain level of silliness built into the whole spectacle that is immensely fun to watch. Frontwoman Melora Creager filled the spaces between songs with witty, dry humor (as a single mother and a self-employed musician, I obviously have a lot of free time on my hands) that completed the element of parody. The high point of their set for me, not being familiar with their work, was a cover of Pink Floyd's touching, yet seemingly omnipresent song, Wish You Were Here.
In the end, I was glad I knew nothing about Rasputina before seeing them live because I felt like I had discovered something. Sometime during their set, it hit me that this is how it was before the Internet...You would go to clubs, see bands you've never heard of and discover what's new.
After Rasputina was finished, Dan and I headed toward the merch table (always one of the highpoints of our indie-concert experiences) and discovered that Shara was acting as her own merch-person. The first thing we noticed is that she's actually rather short. As Dan bought a shirt, she noticed his Decemberists shirt and reminded us that she had toured with them. He told her that we had seen her on Austin City Limits with Sufjan Stevens (which was really the start of our MBD fandom) and then lacking something light enough for her to sign in black felt pen, had her sign his Frank Sinatra-style fedora. I also bought a shirt and asked if she would sign a copy of Bring Me The Workhorse if I bought it. She said yes, and proceeded to do some fancy moves to get the plastic wrapping off the CD...Coolness. She signed the picture inside where she's wearing the dragonfly wings (view the original in ultra hi-res goodness), which is one of my favorites. I told her I love the cover photo (because it's the sort of thing you could put on your wall and it would be good art as well as display your music hipness) and she said that unfortunately she sold out of the LP at the previous stop on the tour.
Later in the car, I would kick myself thinking about all the other things I could have quickly mention in iur short time talking to her...Her recent broken leg, the fact that we had come to see her (most the the people there seemed to be Rasputina fans), how much I had enjoyed the vidoes she did with La Blogotheque, etc.
All-in-all, we had a great, relatively cheap night. I love the fact that you can have these neat little experiences in the indie world with so little of the pomposity of most of modern rock. It all seems more humble, more down-to-earth, more real. This is what music should be about.
Also, I've got to say that the Coventry area of Cleveland Heights (my parents old stomping grounds) is amazing. It has all of the vibrance that downtown Cuyahoga Falls lacks and a scale that dwarfs Highland Square in Akron. If Robart and friends were really smart, they'd try to copy Coventry in downtown CF (hint: we need a real venue down there, not an open air stage, but something like the Grog Shop or the Beachland Ballroom).
Saturday, March 24, 2007
Monday, January 01, 2007
The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
There will be much debate about whether The Crane Wife or Picaresque is the better album. In my opinion, Picaresque had a greater number of catchy, memorable songs. But The Crane Wife has something else, that X-Factor that just tells me this is the better album.
Every song on this album is good, but what makes this album great is the story of the poor farmer and his Crane Wife. Like the vignettes on Picaresque, here we enter the world of a character and we feel his pain. But, unlike Picaresque, we visit this man’s world three times, the first as he experiences his lost, and the second and third times in the events that lead up to the first. It’s the way we have to piece together this man’s story, and why we is in such pain that makes the three Crane Wife songs special.
It must be said that The Island is an immense achievement. This has got to be the best track they’ve ever produced (I’m not as enamored with The Tain as some people are), but then again I’m a sucker for long tracks that borrow from ELP and Jethro Tull.
Even if some of the songs on The Crane Wife sound a little more traditional then Picaresque, the lyrics certainly aren’t any more traditional. Even When the War Came, which sounds the least Decemberists-like of any of the tracks on the album, contains lyrics such as:
“And the war came with a curse and a caterwaul
And the war came with all the poise of a cannonball
And they're picking out our eyes by coal and candlelight
When the war came, the war came hard”
That is classic Meloy.
The Crane Wife also has the better ending in Sons & Daughters. There’s no coda here like Of Angles and Angels is on Picaresque, letting you down after the high that is the Mariner’s Revenge Song. The Crane Wife ends on a high, taking the high after Crane Wife 1 & 2 and wrapping you in Sons & Daughters. Ending with the chorus “Here all the bombs fade away”, we are left with a reaffirming statement in this age of uncertainly. In typical Decemberists fashion though, you’re left wondering what the characters in the song were running away from. What horrible thing has left them in these bunkers and demands that they leave their “tracks untraceable” as they leave?
I love the sound of this album. Picaresque had a sort of “wall of sound” style to it that made it difficult to hear the individual instruments. Everything seemed to blend together. On The Crane Wife, the production seems much clearer; the instruments have more room to breathe and you can make out individual details easily. It’s intoxicating, really.
Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
This was the first album this year that completely blew me away. Rabbit Fur Coat was special, but Fox Confessor is on a level that can only be described as transcendentally awesome.
“The Voice” meets lush instrumentation meets thick, cryptic lyrics. This album wraps you in a warm blanket of sound, hands you a cup of cocoa, and shows you sad films.
After I fell in love with “Fox Confessor” I’ve been basically trying to buy everything else that Neko Case has done (I still need Canadian Amp, and I guess I’ll have to buy the Austin City Limits session when it comes out on CD). Her progression from basically singing straight country songs on The Virginian to becoming darker and more cryptic on Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted, to the hauntingly beautiful wonder that is Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is astonishing.
Some may chide this album for being too short; that she took 4 years to follow up a 40 minute album with a 35 minute album, but I disagree. These songs may be short, but they’re not missing anything. It seems like she simply decided that there was no point to stringing out songs that were already complete for the purpose of adding a few more minutes to the album.
Joanna Newsom - Ys
A good album has some catchy melodies or fun lyrics that get stuck in your head. A great album alters your reality so that for that ephemeral period you spending you listening to it, you become lost in another world, another place, and music becomes an experience.
Joanna Newsom’s Ys has that quality. In the first few seconds of “Emily” you become transfixed. Suddenly, as “Cosmia” ends, you snap out of your trance and realize fifty-five minutes have whizzed by. It’s hard to pick a “best song” on this album because they’re all incredible. “Only Skin” must be given special mention, but then so must “Emily” and “Sawdust & Diamonds”. These are all incredible songs filled with cryptic, beautiful images. They feel as if we are walking through Ms. Newsom’s memories. Joy, loss, love, pain. It’s all here.
That a woman singing poetry and playing harp can have this kind of transcendental effect is a testament to the brilliance of the songwriting on this record. These songs flow like streams. No, these are not just songs, but epic poems put to music.
People are calling this an “important” album. What does that mean? Somehow, I don’t think there will be too many bands adding harpists because of Ys. What this album is though, is a surprise. Milk-Eyed Mender is decent, but Ys is incredible. When an artist produces something like this, it shocks people. I think a lot of people felt that Joanna Newsom’s 2006 album would be good, but it was not expected to be incredible. People expected things from the other artists on this list (Decemberists, Flaming Lips, Neko Case, etc), but not Joanna Newsom. In a lot of ways, Ys is this year’s Illinois, another album who’s predecessor showed potential brilliance but that turned out beyond anyone’s expectations.
Ys is the album that, above all others this year, made me say “Wow”. I can’t call if the best album of the year, because any of these five albums could be that, but this is the one that had more of that “X-Factor” than the others did.
By 2005, Jenny Lewis had undeniably become an indie-pop "it girl". But, that status came with a price…One began to get the feeling that people appreciated her more for her style and beauty and than for the substance of her music. I mean, at the core of “A Better Son/Daughter” or “Does He Love You?” can be found great songwriting, but Rilo Kiley is at its heart a pop band containing two former child actors, one of which happens to be a cute woman. Attributes like that will unfailingly invite the scorn of the supercritical Radiohead-worshipping Indie Illuminati.
And so, Rabbit Fur Coat begins with an announcement: This is a woman who wants to be taken seriously. This is a woman who can wrestle with “The Big Guns”. Stand up and listen or be left behind. This is not a Rilo Kiley album. It’s something new and different…A “re-imagining”, if you will, of Jenny Lewis.
At the same time, this is an album that’s also playful and funny and relaxed, because that’s who Jenny Lewis is. This is not just more Rilo Kiley, this is something new and different. This is music that is folky without being anachronistic; thoughtful without being pretentious; fun but not bubble-gum. In many ways, this is an anti-gospel album; taking the gospel sound and creating songs of doubt.
The contribution of The Watson Twins to this album should not be forgotten. The harmonies are one of the things that really make this album special. Without their backing vocals, this album would seem lifeless and if they had chosen to simply double track Jenny, it would seem overproduced. Without them there would undoubtedly be a void. The choice to bring on these two sisters gives the album an air of genuineness that’s sorely missed on a lot of records.
This isn’t Jenny Lewis recording a solo album, this is Jenny Lewis creating her own work of art.
One thing I love about this album is the Traveling Wilburys cover Handle With Care featuring Jenny Lewis with M. Ward, Ben Gibbard, and Conor Oberst. It’s as if this generation of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings is stepping forward to pick up the reigns rapidly being left by the aging generation of musicians (Harrison, Dylan, Orbison, etc) who laid the foundations of pop music in the 50s and 60s…Reigns which the mainstream has yet to hand to anyone of substance.
The Flaming Lips – At War With the Mystics
At War With the Mystics was probably the most controversial album of the first half of the year. Clearly, people wanted another Yoshimi and they didn’t get it.
Is this album as good as The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi? No. Those albums were masterpieces, and this one falls ever so short. But, is it one of the best albums of 2006? Yes, I think it is.
In fact, this is a brilliant record that hopefully, will someday be recalled for its own brilliance rather than what people wanted it to be.
There is a theme running through this album, and it can be found in the title. We are at war with the mystics. We know who the mystics are. They believe they know better then us. They are the first to defend the status quo and the last to evolve socially. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were two blows to the mystics. The American Revolution was a more modern blow to the mystics. The Emancipation Proclamation was a blow to mystics. The New Deal was another. Brown v. Board of Education was another. We know who the mystics are.
We are at war with the mystics because we have to be. The future of civilization depends on it. It always has, always will. Socrates was at war with the mystics. Jesus was at war with the mystics. Galileo was at war with the mystics. Voltaire was at war with the mystics. Thomas Jefferson was at war with the mystics. Charles Darwin was at war with the mystics. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was at war with the mystics.
This is a political album. But, it’s not political in the sense of when you sit around a table with your friends at 3:00AM discussing how the world should be run, not in “The McLaughlin Group” sense of what some Senator said this week. Ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred years from now The W.A.N.D. will still be a song that means something to someone because it’s a song about the people rising up and taking control. It’s a protest song in the classic sense. It’s like something Pete Seeger would create if he were to be born on a starship in 3000AD. There has always been a need for songs like that, and there probably always will be, because we are always at war with the mystics.
Why are we at war with the mystics? Because greed and hubris and hate and ignorance are all part of the human condition. Each of us has their own battle to fight with the mystics:
It's a very dangerous thing to do exactly what you want
Because you cannot know yourself, or what you'd really do
People have criticized The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song for being annoying and overly silly, but you really have to listen closely. It’s really a short essay on ethics:
If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch
Would you do it?
If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich
Would you do it?
If you could watch everybody work while you just lay on your back
Would you do it?
If you could take all the love without giving any back
Would you do it?
Our quest for a more peaceful, more civilized form of existence as a species much happen within each of us before it can happen to the world as a whole. None of this is new of course, philosophers like Kant and others have been saying these things for centuries. But they didn’t say it in four minutes, fifty one seconds at the beginning of a psychedelic indie-rock/post-punk album.
So, we are not just at war with the mystics, we are at war with ourselves. Witness Vein of Stars:
Maybe there isn't a vein of stars callin' out my name
They'll glow from above our heads
Nothin' there to see you down on your knees
25, 26, 27
Back from the future maybe there ain't no heaven
There's just you and me
Maybe that's all whose left
And if there ain't no heaven
Maybe there ain't no hell
This is not a song about rejecting organized religion. It’s a song about accepting the possibility that your favorite version of the truth is not in fact the truth. In order to respect other human beings and coexist peacefully with them, we must always accept the possibility that we are wrong. Those who cannot accept this become fanatics:
You think you're radical
But you're not so radical
In fact, you're fanatical
My favorite track on At War With the Mystics is the driving guitar cataclysm Pompeii am Götterdämmerung. This is what it sounds like when the mystics win. We listen as a loving man and woman are obliterated by forces they cannot understand.
I say to the naysayers, how can you say that this album not live up to expectations when it has a track like Pompeii am Götterdämmerung? It may be the best track they’ve ever recorded.
This album is not Yoshimi and it’s not the Soft Bulletin, it’s something that was clearly intended to be different…And it’s something that needed to be done.
This notable mention started off as a little quickie bit of text about the album and turned into a full blown essay...As a result, it deserves it's own post:
I wanted to love this album…I really did…
Let me go back. My introduction to indie music came in the form of a free download of Metric’s Combat Baby on the iTunes Music Store in what to have been late ’03 or early ’04 (because iTunes for Windows was new). Before this time, I mostly listened to classic rock, and in some ways I was bored. My roommate (who listened to Linkin Park, Metallica, and some country shit I’m glad I don’t know the name of) jokingly challenged me to find something from the last 10 years. Before that free track, I had no idea that the kind of music I wanted to listen to existed. A doorway had opened.
The next year, my dorm was filled with iTunes users, and we all swapped music through the music sharing feature. There was a girl upstairs who was into tons of girl rock stuff and she had Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, which I promptly fell in love with.
Metric led to Broken Social Scene and Stars…Investigation of other Canadian music led to the New Pornographers, Destroyer, and Arcade Fire…To make a long story short, Emily Haines was basically my introduction to indie music and thus the gateway to this awesome stuff I’m listening to today.
Which is why I really wanted to love Knives Don’t Have Your Back. But I didn’t.
This is not a bad album; not by a long shot. But, in a year of awesome and surprising solo albums from other female artists, it just doesn’t impress the way Jenny Lewis’s album did or sounding interesting in the way that Amy Milan’s album did, or sound as soulful as Chan Marshall’s. A solo album should be a showcase of an artist’s capabilities, and while there is clearly talent displayed on this album, we don’t see every facet of the artist. Where is the more wistful Emily of Calculation Theme or Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl on this album? This is an album that sounds too much like a rainy day. I know that Emily Haines tends to gravitate toward the dark and foreboding, but we already know that she doesn’t have to! That’s what made Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, where she sounded much more multi-faceted, so great.
This is not to say that there aren’t good songs on Knives Don’t Have Your Back. Mostly Waving sounds like a good Metric song that’s been slowed down. It’s full of classic Haines tongue twisters, and those horns are intoxicating. Reading In Bed approaches the kind of range I wanted to hear on this album. If you’re in the mood for downer music, it doesn’t get much better than The Last Page. Doctor Blind is clearly another high point, one that will get caught in your head for at least a week.
The real high point of the album, though, is the awesome packaging. It’s done like a hardcover book, with the booklet attached to the binding to become the pages. Interspersed in the lyrics are X-Rays, of all things. The back cover has an “author photo” of Ms. Haines and a reviewer’s quote. I love the way that Knives Don’t Have Your Back seems to tower over the other CDs in my collection.
This is a good album…The problem is that I was expecting a great album.
I’ll tell you a secret…Any time I’m angry or ticked off, I can just listen to some Camera Obscura and feel better. I’ve come to the conclusion that this Scottish twee-pop must contain natural mellowing agents or something…In any event, I haven’t yet decided if Let’s Get Out of This Country is better than Underachievers Let’s Try Harder, but that’s because the latter is a favorite of mine, not because of any fault in the album.
Amy Milan = Electro Pop, right?
Apparently not. Honey From the Tombs is a folk album…Not only that, but this is a good folk album. Touché, Ms. Milan.
I’ve got to say though, the album cover sucks. On first glance, Amy looks like she’s dressed up like a Gestapo agent’s mistress. It gives you the impression this album is full of goth screaming or something.
This is an infectious album that will hopefully be someday seen as the solid beginning to a great career. Shara Worden has a classic voice…It would be just as home in Mozart’s time as it is now.
This album is rather low-key compared You Are Free, Cat Power’s last album. But, it seems to be more musical, more subtle, more professional, and more complete sounding. Supposedly, this album was recorded in a series of days in between Chan’s drinking binges, which is amazing. This is a quality release, and while it didn’t blow me away, I can’t find fault with it.
“Bad Education” was my favorite song about a transsexual from 2006. Team Love should be proud they have these guys.
The year 2006 rapidly recedes behind us, which means that it's time for anyone who considers themselves even slightly interesting in music to post their "List" of the best music of the year.
I'm not comfortable with lists though. How is one to judge that any one of five incredible albums are better than each other? What makes this one #4 and that one #5? I don't know, and frankly, I don't care. Simply put, 2006 was an astonishingly good year for music.
So, the way I'm going to handle this is that first, I'm going to post a series of honorable mentions...Albums that were in fact very good but didn't totally knock me off my feet. Then, I'll be posting my five favorite albums, in no particular order.
I was planning to post these mini-reviews slowly, over a period of days, but I'm sick of twiddling with them, so instead, I'll post them as separate posts but they'll get posted all at the same time.
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Monday, October 02, 2006
Do you understand what the word "shipped" actually means? See, I don't think you do. Apparently, when you say "shipped", you actually meant "I told the mail carrier to pick up a package". That doesn't not mean shipped. Shipped is the past tense of ship, and to ship means the package has moved away from the warehouse. Shipped means the fracking package has made its fracking way out the door and is on it's merry way to my doorstep. By definition, a package cannot have shipped and at the same time still be sitting on a dock somewhere waiting for the mail truck. It's one or the other.
At the same time, don't tell me a package has shipped 30 seconds after I ordered if if I ordered it at 9:00PM on a Saturday night. Then I know you're lying immediately. At least allow me to enjoy the illusion that my package has actually shipped.
Monday, September 25, 2006
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
You may recall that way back in February (my how time flies) I posted a list of 27 albums (I said 28 at the time, but miscounted) I had purchased because I had previously downloaded them from the Internet.
Here's 15 more albums I've purchased since then:
A.C Newman - The Slow Wonder
Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country
The Decemberists - The Tain
Dire Straits - Brothers in Arms
The Flaming Lips - At War With the Mystics
Mission of Burma - The Obliterati
Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
Neko Case - Blacklisted
Neko Case - The Tigers Have Spoken
The New Pornographers - Mass Romantic
The New Pornographers - Electric Version
The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema
Rilo Kiley - The Execution of All Things
Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche
TV On The Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain
That brings the grand total to 42 albums I've legitimately purchased (i.e. bought the disc from a real store; no AllofMP3 nonsense here) simply because I downloaded them first and liked what I heard. Oh the horrors of file sharing.
I have a suspicion that within a few weeks I'll be adding The Crane Wife, Knives Don't Have Your Back, one or more Laura Veirs albums (Carbon Glacier and Year of Meteors), and perhaps that old classic Tarkus to this list.