Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Can You Find Yourself By Selling Out?

On Independence Day, I witnessed something disturbing. I witnessed a man who earned his music stripes the hard way, through sweat and toil and hundreds of tour stops over more than a decade, sell himself out to Chevy Trucks.

Most people don't even know who Will Hoge is, yet there he was, performing in this Frankensteinean half-video, half propagandistic product placement Chevy Truck ad

But I know him. Will Hoge and I are friends on Facebook. So what I’m saying is we’re basically brothers from other mothers. Or Eskimo brothers. Or something. We’re tight; he just doesn’t know it is all.

He's my age and just had a career high-mark year in 2013. First, Eli Young Band took his 2009 song, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” practically re-recorded it note for note, and won a crap-ton of critical praise and award nominations for it. And now he was cashing checks and snapping necks for Chevy. And I was unsure how to feel about it.

That I sat 10 feet away from Hoge in the front row of a Patty Griffin concert at the Ryman years ago is apropos, since Patty is the Queen of Late Bloomin' Music and Pilfered Hits. On his Facebook page, Hoge has seemed thrilled about every bit of this. Eli Young making a hit out of Xeroxing his song, and Chevy making him a blue collar poster boy. And I wonder what percentage of his career earnings have come from the last 12 months. I'm betting it's a number in the high teens or 20s.

I own every studio record Hoge has ever released and one live album, so it’s difficult for me to act like I’m unbiased in All Matters Hoge. His last two releases, Number Seven and The Wreckage, have been let-downs in the Hoge Pantheon, but nothing catastrophic or awful.

From a commercial standpoint, Hoge’s problem is he likes too many kinds of music, and his albums and career have roamed all over the place, with songs infused with classic rock, blues, country and all things in-between. Blackbird on a Lonely Wire flirted with AA chart rock, and Draw the Curtains showed an independent country-inclined side. His America EP aimed for Springsteen-esque glory, and The Man Who Killed Love proved he didn't want to be slave to the corporate music machine.

Hoge's video/commercial (shudder) shows him performing in a barn for lots of dudes in big cowboy hats in-between shots of clean trucks and hardscrabble men. Depending on my mood, it's shameless pandering or highly polished and brilliant branding. So it's probably both. And a part of me gets a little nauseated. This guy who cut his teeth traveling the country in all kinds of horrid vehicles, who played any and every sort of honky tonk and dive... only to sell some trucks?

But Will Hoge almost died four years ago. A scooter accident left him in such a state that, even if he survived, there was no guarantee he would look the same again, walk again, maybe even ever sing again. That wreck, the surgeries, the recovery, gave him unusual time off the road to sit and ponder the big questions. Not in hotel rooms, but in a hospital bed, and in his home. Not with a liquor bottle or a tallboy, but with water, and juice.

Hoge and his wife have two boys. As I struggle to figure out how to pay for three kids of my own even as I make a decent living, I damn sure don’t get too excited about judging him for his decision to cash in.

Two years ago, my college professor of poetry for accepting a commission of several thousand dollars to write a poem honoring a small-town manufacturing company. The owner heard him read and loved his writing, and he wanted a poem to honor his company, a place he spent his life building up.

In art and poetry, in the music of previous centuries, in half the pieces my church choir sings, commissioned works are greatly respected and frequently beautiful. Nowadays, we call it selling out.

Never Give In, released earlier this month, is Will Hoge’s best album in six years, and I still love the guy's music. It doesn't seem like selling out killed his talent or his passion, and I can't wait to see him in the next honky tonk or local dive he finds near me. I'm confident he'll put on one helluva show.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rock And Roll Animal

Lou Reed, who took rock 'n' roll into dark corners as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist for the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist, has died at the age of 71, his publicist said. --CNN Breaking News

Since 1974, Lou Reed was never very far from my consciousness. Creator of any number of iconic rock riffs and lyrics, it wasn't rare to have those rhythms or words swirling around in my head just below actual recognition. Just yesterday, as I was pondering my next post for this blog, a conversation with a friend about Jefferson Airplane/Starship had me thinking about raunchy rock lyrics that slipped onto mainstream radio, and, of course, this line from "Walk On The Wild Side" came to mind:

"But she never lost her head/ Even when she was giving head."

The thing about Mr. Reed is that a line like that isn't a cheap stab at raunchy, a pandering to loosening morals, or anything like that. Chances are, he was probably amazed that the song became a hit, that it came blasting out of big stereo speakers with its combination of breezy, beachy music and comparatively sordid lyrics. But those were people he knew that he was singing about, hangers-on and acolytes of the Andy Warhol lifestyle in New York City.

What is special about Lou Reed is that while bringing to light lifestyles that most Americans in the 1970's knew nothing about, he does nothing particularly to celebrate those people. It's as if he is simply saying, here, they are, make of them what you will, and now the colored girls are going to sing.

Lou Reed always made me uncomfortable. I knew that he knew things that I didn't know and didn't want to know. I knew that he would say whatever he wanted to in an unvarnished way that wasn't always pleasing. But I also knew, even before CNN said it this week, that I wanted to travel into "rock 'n roll's dark corners" myself.

I didn't come to Lou Reed by way of the Velvet Underground. Based on their record sales, I would guess that few who claim they were with him from the start actually were. No, my introduction came via the song mentioned above, which I'd put in the same place as the Kink's "Lola," a catchy song whose implications I didn't quite get. But by 1974, when FM radio was big, but still vital, Reed burst through the speakers with his live album, Rock And Roll Animal. All of a sudden, with the most beautiful guitar interplay I had heard since the Allman Brothers, here was Reed as a major player in the "glam rock" game. And then I became a Lou Reed fan.

Along with Bowie, T-Rex, Mott The Hoople, Alice Cooper, Reed now had a band with killer, crunching guitarists playing awe-inspiring, melodic solos (indeed, Alice Cooper would build his best band largely from the band Reed toured with for his live album) and, I would argue, it is that sound that is the reason Mr. Reed is being cherished so much during this week of his death. The glitter and the androgyny sent us back to the Velvets.

As I look back on Mr. Reed's career now, I see that there has been a Lou Reed for every generation, a different place for record and CD buyers of the day to find their way into those dark corners. Not that every way in is inviting. Not unlike Neil Young, Mr. Reed's various experiments and pet projects could be hit or miss, and there may be entire CDs not worth owning (in addition to Metal Machine Music).

Since 1974, I've connected with Reed's music of and on, without any consistency. It's been over 20 years since I last bought one of his new releases. The last two I connected with were New York (which I bought much later) and Songs For Drella. The latter, his cycle of songs about Andy Warhol, may be the most played Lou Reed CD that I have ever owned, though few critics would list those songs among his best. But they took me into those "dark corners," back to that world of "Walk On The Wild Side," and illuminated Warhol, the Velvets, and the whole scene in a way that nothing else had.

It is ironic, I suppose, that the last Lou Reed purchase I made took me all the way back to the beginning. During the "great box set craze," I got the Velvet Undergound box and began learning about the beginning of Lou Reed. It is fitting, I suppose, that my final contact with Lou Reed came just a year or so ago, when I bought a used copy of his book of song lyrics in New Orleans. Everything was stripped away but the words. I started with the guitars and ended with the words.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Showdown for the Guiltiest Pleasure of the 21st Century

guilt·y pleas·ure - something, such as a movie, television program, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.

I have four nominees for my Guiltiest Musical Pleasure of the 21st Century (so far):

The Ting Tings
By the strictest of definitions, this band deserves the trophy, since their entire raison d'etre, so far as I can tell, is to annoy the ever-lovin' shit out of any listener with half a brain. Their choruses repeat enough to make Britney Spears do a double-take, like, "Why you stealin' my plans, skinny girl?" Songs like "That's Not My Name" and "Shut Up And Let Me Go" off their 2008 debut hooked me mostly because my then-elementary-aged daughters ate them up. Or at least that's what I tell myself when I'm feeling especially guilty about enjoying the album.

What puts The Ting Tings into another category of guilty pleasure is how they intentionally created a sophomore album, Sounds From Nowheresville, with the sole purpose of pissing off their record company. They can't decide whether they're in on their own joke or have ambitions greater than the only people who could like them could fathom. Either way, it's a mish-mash of the mostly forgettable.

Guilty Test Drive: "Give It Back" (YouTube)

Scissor Sisters
The Scissor Sisters have the gayest music I've ever enjoyed. "Take Your Mama" from their 2004 debut was a study in how Elton John might have sounded in 1970 if he could have worn that Donald Duck outfit with a few more rainbows on it. The first half of the album is insanely bold. They disco-fy "Comfortably Numb" and get away with it.

Their follow-up, Ta-Dah, contained our family favorite, "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'," but overall the album's individual pieces fail to stand out with the flames of the first. I guess their third album, Night Work, came when they decided to throw every fabric inch of caution to the wind and release what has to be the most publicly accessible early-80's-inspired Gay Pride flashback album I've ever heard. The title track could be the theme song for the gay version of "Night Shift." "Fire With Fire" is a straightforward, unapologetic gay pride anthem. The piece de resistance is "Skin Tight," where the singer addresses the sensation-killing frustration of wearing condoms during sex (unless you want to think "nothing else sliding between you and me" has another definition).

Guilty Test Drive: "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" (YouTube)

The Go! Team
When I accidentally discovered The Go! Team in 2005, it was the wackiest and most unexpected album I'd heard since my high school friend John introduced me to Art of Noise in the late '80s. That a group of people got together to mix cheesy '70s commercial jingles from all over the musical map with poorly-synced cheerleader chants and random special effects sounds boggles my mind to this day. Whatever else can be said, Thunder Lightning Strike is unlike anything I'd ever heard before.

Their follow-up albums, while enjoyable, were unfortunate reminders that a band like The Go! Team can only break a mold once. The listener cannot help but be disappointed when what emerges from speakers is more of the same, which is in reality still quite unique to The Go! Team and plenty sharp.

Guilty Test Drive: "Huddle Formation" (YouTube)

Sleigh Bells
The Go! Team went out one night in 2007, partied too hard in Vegas, got laid, and then abandoned the child borne of their irresponsibility. That child was raised by wolves and named Sleigh Bells in 2008. Where The Go! Team created cutesy sonic treats borne of some acid-inspired Willy Wonka fantasy, Sleigh Bells just threw everything they owned against a wall and recorded it. Most of the songs on their debut album, Treats, are so overloaded with sound that no earthly speaker can manage the output. That sound -- the gross distorted overload of speakers -- is just another arrow in their quiver as they turn the entire universe to 11. It's screaming voices, screaming guitars, drums played by The Hulk, and occasional milliseconds of silence long enough to create greater abuse to innocent eardrums.

Sleigh Bells' two follow-up albums fell victim to a similar fate as Go! Team: You can only sound that unexpectedly unique once. The difference, and the advantage for Sleigh Bells, is their sound is rooted not in kitsch or flashback but in speaker-busting aggression. There's more room to tweak that machine and come out with something that feels fresher. Ironically, I couldn't identify a single song from the first album. It all blends together in a nonstop joyous ear f**k. The second and third albums, on the other hand, aren't as strong on the whole but have standout songs like "Comeback Kid," "Crush," "Sugar Cane" and "You Don't Get Me Twice."

Guilty Pleasure Test Drive: "Bitter Rivals" (YouTube)

* The Ting Tings lose because they haven't given me enough pleasure to excuse the guilt.
* The Scissor Sisters lose because a guilty pleasure shouldn't be about the listener's shortcomings or awkwardness; it's not the band's fault or problem if I'm uncomfortable with just how in my face or ear their gayness is;
 * The Go! Team finishes a close second, because they arrived with the 21st Century version of catchy noise first. The guilty part is there, but the pleasure has dissipated.

The Winner: Sleigh Bells
Even three years later, there are moments when I'm alone in my car when nothing will cure what ails me quite like Sleigh Bells cranked to max volume. While their second and third albums can't match the magic of that first time, they pack everything you'd want from their brand of noise assault. My guilt is deserved, my pleasure still intense. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Superb Way to End a Great Show

G… C… D… Em

No one sane has ever compared Better Than Ezra to The Beatles or Nirvana. No one sane has ever suggested Better Than Ezra should be a first-ballot inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

What Better Than Ezra is (and I hope most of what they always wanted to be), is a superior brand of college rockin’, party lovin’, good-time havin’ band with a lead singer whose heart is attracted to bittersweetness but whose ear craves candy.

A band can’t cut its teeth in New Orleans without knowing how to make sure you have fun.

Kevin Griffin’s lyrics can be hit and miss, but even in his darker moments, he knows a few drinks, a few power chords, and a few strangers groovin’ to the beat can do a lot of healing. “King of New Orleans” is an uptempo jangly rocker about partiers who beat up a homeless teen. “Alison Foley” is about that hopelessly alluring gal pal who will can’t grow up. “A Lifetime” is about the death of a high school friend on the way to her graduation. Song after BTE song revolves around tough or hard-knock stories, but you come away from them with some strange sense of hope, of gratitude that your story carries on. That’s what I love about them, this romantic approach to What Doesn’t Kill You Makes A Good Pop Song.

Apparently “college rock” is what they used to call “alternative.” By the time Better Than Ezra’s name spread past Louisiana, “college rock” was a dinosaur term, and it’s a damn shame, because BTE is the last of the great college rock bands. I’ve seen them three times in three completely different venues, including once in an open-air festival before the 2005 Final Four in St. Lous, and every time they brought the magic.

Some bands are beloved live because they are up there doing something musically special. Something about the creative energy, or the teamwork, or the sheer talent, that makes the viewer know she is privileged to be a witness. But some bands just make you happy to be alive. At these concerts, you’re not so much a witness as part of the party.

All three times I saw BTE, at or toward the end of their set, they did something that guaranteed I would be a fan.

Many bands pull audience members on the stage for one thing or another. Mostly it’s just to let them stand there and get sung to. Bono regularly does it, and so does Carrie Underwood, but the tradition is older than Prince or Ozzy or the video for “Dancing in the Dark.” But I don’t recall another band who, as their evening in the spotlight is wrapping up, invites an audience member onto the stage to actually play an instrument with the band. But BTE does.

They ask for someone who knows one of the greats from their first album, “This Time of Year.” They hand the guy (or I guess it could have been a girl, but I never saw that) an plugged-in acoustic and let him go at it. And he plays with them the whole song.

It’s not a complicated song. A few picked chords and four strumming chords make the whole song. It’s so simple that it’s one of the first six songs I taught myself to play. And I’m not good. At all.

The first time I saw this happen, I was nervous, for the band and for the guy selected to get up in front of the whole crowd. By the third time, I was confident things would go well, but the act still held its charm. The act is an intentional, symbolic statement by the band that the audience helps determine the quality of a BTE show. It’s a statement that the artists and the fans are in it together, and I love bands and musicians who value their patrons.

Every time I left their show, within 24 hours I’d picked up my guitar and played my trusty six songs until my fingers hurt. Which didn’t take long, ‘cuz I never play much. Not only does a moment like that show Better Than Ezra’s opinions of their fans, but it also reminds the witnesses that the biggest differences between musicians and their fans are blood, sweat and tears.

Do you want it? Then pick up that guitar, kid. It can all begin with four little chords.

G… C… D… Em

Monday, October 21, 2013

Post-Beatle Blues

December 8th, 1980.  The graduate school dorm at the University of New Hampshire.

MY FUTURE WIFE:  John Lennon has been shot and killed outside of his apartment in New York.
HER EARNEST FRIEND FROM INDIANA:  Oh, no!  Now the Beatles will never get back together.

I've been wrong all these years.  I've been trying to respect a memory.  This realization came to me last week, when I saw that Sir Paul McCartney had released a new CD.  I haven't heard the CD, haven't seen reviews, don't even know who might be in Paul's band these days.  No, my mind took me to a different connection--in about two months, Paul will have lived 33 more years than John.  Thirty-three years.  Twelve years more than George.

So here's what I'm blue about: the four ex-Beatles have had over one hundred years of solo time between them since the band ended, and not that much to show for it musically.  Think about it.  Think hard.  There just isn't that much there.  John's time was relatively short, but at his untimely death, his songwriting arc was not on the rise.  It is far more interesting, for me at least, to speculate about where Jimi Hendrix would have gone  than John Lennon.  George, freed from the Beatles,  became a wonderful human being, but his great solo music is mostly all contain on All Things Must Pass, his initial explosion of creativity after the Beatles.

 Paul I admire for maintaining a career and for keeping the Beatle flame alive, but even though I am more generous toward his work than I once was, there still isn't much of it that I'd want to listen to.  And Ringo, God love him, well he figured it out pretty well; he is the one who would be the most fun to see in concert with his ever-changing band of All-Stars.  But that would be purely nostalgic on all counts.

In that output there just aren't that many songs that, although pleasant to hear in a supermarket, maintain the timeless quality of their work as a group.

And the best song of all, "Maybe, I'm Amazed," was the first one released after the break-up.

That is always a surprise because, as I alluded to at the top, I am a John defender.  Long before Team Edward and Team Jacob, there was Team Paul and Team John.  But I heard "Maybe, I'm Amazed" again today and, 43 years later, it sounded as fresh and relevant as ever.

That led me to consider what are my favorite of the post-Beatle songs.  It isn't a "mixtape" I've encountered anywhere else, and I decided to limit myself to ten songs so that I'd be forced to stick to the essential (though maybe I cheated and snuck in an eleventh--hey, whatever gets you through the night, right?)

So, here's my list.  I've even tried to put it in a kind of order.  Maybe I'm not wedded to it, absolutely, but, sure, I'll defend it.  There are two glaring omissions, so let's dispense with those first.  "Imagine," while an IMPORTANT song, is not here because it is so weighty and because it's not a favorite listening experience.  Once I "got" the song, there was no need to listen to it over and over.  "Band On The Run" could be on this list for its music (especially those strummed acoustics near the start),  but it's a dumb lyrical concept and even sillier as an album concept, and for that reason, I always hear it with half pleasure, half irritation.

1.  Paul--"Maybe I'm Amazed"
2.  John--"Instant Karma"
3.  George--"What Is Life" or "Awaiting On You All" (tie)
4.  John--"God"
5.  George--"All Things Must Pass"
6.  John--"Oh Yoko"
7. Paul--"Coming Up"
8. George (with Wilburys)--"Handle With Care"
9. Ringo--"It Don't Come Easy"
10. Paul--"Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"

Come at me.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

'80s Music Down Under: World Domination via Elle Macpherson

"The supermodels, Willy? That's all they are. Bottled promise." -- Beautiful Girls

Was there any better or cooler place to be in the 1980s than Australia? OK, so I’ve never been to Australia, not in person, but I know for certain it was the coolest place on the planet in the Big Decade.

The reason Australia took over rock and pop music in the ‘80s is simple: Elle Macpherson.

Elle Macpherson turned 18 in 1982 and was well on her way to becoming a supermodel. By that point -- possibly earlier -- she had already inspired every single male with a lick of musical talent to seek deep into their souls and eardrums for the best music they could generate, solely in the hopes of winning her love.

She was all seven muses of inspiration folded into one body -- Time magazine dubbed her “The Body,” which when you consider the rise of supermodel celebrities in the mid- to late ‘80s, to name give one of them such a moniker would be offensive were it not so well-deserved.

By the time her beauty had been imported into America, she’d already revolutionized music Down Under.

Macpherson also killed Olivia Newton-John's career. ONJ made musical magic from the lemon that was Xanadu and was bound for another decade of success when "Physical" hit Number 1 in 1981. That song -- laugh if you wish -- was the biggest-selling single of the entire decade, yet she never cracked the Top 20 again. All because Elle Macpherson turned 18. In the context of The Greater Good, this is a sacrifice we all must live with.

By 1988, I owned albums by, or had taped friends’ albums by, the following Australians: INXS (link to post on KICK), Rick Springfield (links), Men At Work, Icehouse, Midnight Oil, The Church, and Hoodoo Gurus. (Somehow I didn’t catch even a mild AC/DC fever until almost a decade later.)

The three most stunning and start-to-finish Elle Macpherson-inspired albums from the ‘80s:
  • Living In Oz - Rick Springfield
  • Kick - INXS
  • Magnum Cum Louder - Hoodoo Gurus
A sampling of additional favorite Macpherson Era songs from Australia:
  • What’s My Scene - Hoodoo Gurus
  • The Dead Heart - Midnight Oil
  • Don’t Change - INXS
  • Baby Can Dance - Hoodoo Gurus
  • Under the Milky Way - The Church
  • Sometimes - Midnight Oil
  • Be Good Johnny - Men At Work
  • Crazy - Icehouse
  • Forgotten Years - Midnight Oil
  • World Start Turning - Rick Springfield
  • Heartbreak Kid - Icehouse
The reason I might never make it to Australia, to see that place with my own eyes, is that it’s always been a fictional, too-good-to-be-true country of brilliant criminal minds in beautiful supermodel bodies, where Elle Macpherson is worshipped and obeyed and feared in much the same way Kim Jong Il is treated in North Korea. She bore a decade of pop music supremacy on her cocoa butter-soft shoulders and then faded quietly into the outback.

Then Natalie Imbruglia tried taking up the flag, and Australia hasn't had five great bands since. Jet and Silverchair and a few others have shone promise from time to time, but nothing has come close to the Macpherson Era.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

One-Song Saturday

The song is only 2:38 long.  There is nothing to it but a voice backed by a competent mandolin.  All day I have been playing it over and over.  After about the fourth time, I declared this "One-Song Saturday" and have been faithful to the song ever since, playing it as I drove alone, while waiting for my wife and my friend to pick up muffulettas for the trip home, later as we drove through the rain to the farmer's market, again back to the hotel and then on to Commander's Palace.  I played it again off and on as we stopped and started our way up Magazine Street.

Originally appearing in the soundtrack for the film, Into The Wild, "Rise" came my way via my friend Tommy, who like most musical friends, can send songs that make me shake my head because they don't work for me and can introduce me to songs that make me shiver from their sheer beauty.  This is the latter.

Longtime readers of this blog know of my penchant for the anthemic, the desperate, the defiant in the songs I love most.  Although "Rise" is too short and simplistic to be an anthem, it still stands as a personal stance against difficult times, and I can only imagine where it appeared in the context of the movie (which I haven't seen).

Such is the way of the world
You can never know
Just where to put all your faith
And how will it grow?
Gonna rise up 
Burning black holes in dark memories
Gonna rise up
Turning mistakes into gold...

Such is the passage of time
Too fast to fold
Suddenly swallowed by signs
Lo and behold
Gonna rise up
Find my direction magnetically
Gonna rise up
Throw down my ace in the hole

I love the spiritual desolation of the lyrics.  This is a song about not knowing what to do, not knowing what to turn to.  It is a speaker trying to convince himself that he can turn things around, that despite everything, he has one last chance and he's going to play it.  Do we need to be young man on a misguided odyssey in Alaska to know what that is about?

No consistent Eddie Vedder fan myself, the song verifies for me that there is a kind of song that only he can sing.  His phrasings on instrument and in voice so perfectly match the feeling of "Rise" that there would be no point to anyone ever covering it.  Additional instruments, a rearrangement, other or different voices?  What could these contribute?

"Rise" is a small song, but it is a perfect one, at least as defined by needing nothing else added to it.

And I say that while fully acknowledging that most songs this abstract are doomed to failure.  It is so difficult to capture a listener with a generalized plight.  But I fell in love with the song months before I learned it was from the film, and it spoke to me immediately.  Perhaps the lines which open each stanza do the trick:  by alerting us that "the way of the world" and "the passage of time" are circumstances we can neither understand or keep up with, Vedder has spoken to our common condition.  Then, the chance to spend 2:38 with a fellow traveler who doesn't have that much more to say about except to be there with us is comfort enough.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Not Another Blog Post About U2

"Check out our awesome headphones. If you listen
closely, right before these things break on you,
you can hear the sound of us making money."
According to Patty Griffin, bigwig music exec Jimmy Iovine verbally bitch-slapped her while she was in the process of recording Silver Bell, her follow-up to Flaming Red, her 1998 attempt to enter the pop-rock fray.

Unimpressed with her work, the encounter went something like this:

"He basically told me, 'You have never made a good record,'" she says. "He handed me a copy of 'Beautiful Day,' which is a U2 record, and said, 'Take a listen to this. This is how you write a hit record.'"

The word “douchebag” is overused and abused to the point of being boring. Mr. Iovine can rattle off a long list of reasons why he knows more about music than me and 200 more music bloggers. But if you read enough literature, if you watch enough great TV and movies, you can tell what happened to Iovine, for his is a tale as old as time.

What began as a passionate love of music. As he worked up the food chain, his hands were, on some level, on Born To Run and Bat Out of Hell! He worked with Patti Smith and co-produced Damn the Torpedoes! But if you read his Wikipedia biography, what began as a love of great music began to sell itself, inch by profit margin inch, to the Almighty Dollar. The longer one longs for the sound of gold, raining down, tinkling and clanking together, rather than the sound of great and beautiful music.

Is the story of Jimmy Iovine’s rise to success any different, ultimately, than Walter White’s descent into hell? Both began with the best of ideals and ended up proud of nothing so much as their power and wealth. If there’s a God or a Shakespeare in heaven, surely one day Jimmy Iovine will look at himself in the bathroom mirror -- a mirror that will likely cost more than I see in a year -- and wonder what happened to the kid who just loved music and worked with Bruce and Tom and Patti in their early days, instead of a bunch of American Idol karaoke experts.

How else can one explain the insult to Patty Griffin, the shelving of Silver Bell? Although this 37-year-old singer-songwriter's star has barely once dropped from the critically-acclaimed sky, her album sales don't add up to a fraction of Achtung Baby, yet Iovine's saying she's a failure compared to U2.

Bob doesn’t think much of U2. He doesn’t think about them often, but when he does, he doesn’t think of them highly. I, on the other hand, think they are the biggest and most important band born after 1975, in terms of longevity and influence. They’ve sold more than 150 million records and have eight Number One hits. For 20 years, they rarely played it safe with their success, often making sharp turns in sound, occasionally with disappointing results from a commercial and pop-quality standard.

What kind of douchebag would tell a woman with two albums, one of which was just her voice and her guitar against the whole world, a woman who didn’t even catch a break until her mid-30s, and tell her she’s no U2? While he's at it, Iovine should go tell Emmylou Harris that she'll never make a hit as awesome as "Vogue."

To be sure, Patty Griffin is no U2, but no matter how many millions love them, and no matter how many millions will never hear a Patty Griffin song, her best songs can fight toe to toe in the ring, with every ounce of soul and depth as the best U2 songs.

If for no other reason than to realize just how much of Iovine’s soul got lost between 1973 and 2000, you oughtta go listen to Silver Bell, the album that sat hidden in cobwebs by a record company for 13 years. It would never have gone platinum, but it inspired the Dixie Chicks, who took three of her songs and went soaring into the stratosphere with them.

I’d like to think the 20-year-old Iovine who worked his way up at Record Plant, would love nothing more than to kick the 47-year-old Iovine in the nuts for being such a prick, for having traded in an ear for quality for one that used “ka-ching” as a tuning fork. The sound that comes to my ears as I imagine that moment... it's better than gold; it's justice.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Two Chords

Does a song really need more than two chords?

I get why it might need more than one chord, but I am not even entirely convinced of that.

 There are plenty of one chord songs that work--Fleetwood Mac's "World Turning" (for the most part) is just one chord.  So is the BoDean's "Ballad Of Jenny Rae" and Hot Tuna's "99 Year Blues."  Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.  There are a ton more.

The reason I don't fight too hard for the one chord version is because it operates on a tension that doesn't always work for me.  A one-chord song does not resolve-- it hangs in place and makes the listener wait for a shift that never comes, so it ends up becoming kind of a jitter-causing thing for me. Sometimes a one-chord song just bores me.

But the two chord song?  Well, it's got the built-in back and forth that can go on and on and on forever.  It's built for jamming, built for soloing and built for storytelling.  Consider two classics of the genre--the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" and the Grateful Dead's "Fire On The Mountain."

"Heroin," built on just a D and a G chord, moves slowly for most of the song, picking individual notes in the chords, allowing Lou Reed to characterize a heroin addiction using all kinds of effective metaphors ("Heroin/It's my wife and it's my life), but the song also does something very clever--it uses the same two chords during the sped-up parts of the song ("When I'm rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus' son"). "Heroin" doesn't follow the standard verse-chorus structure, but because the two parts move at such different speeds, using the same chords feels very different, especially because the "melody" that Reed "screams" over the fast part isn't so much a melody as a 2-note wail, each note reflecting the chord beneath it.

"Fire On The Mountain" uses two chords, B and A, in a very different way.  As one might suspect from a Grateful Dead song, the movement between the chords creates a groove, in this case a kind of reggae-influenced groove, with a lot of freedom in the ways the chords are picked and the choice of their shapes and the drums that go wherever they want to while maintaining a beat that keeps chugging along.  In Jerry Garcia's hands, a two-chord song is an opportunity to explore the boundaries of the guitar, and even in the opening lead signature, he moves between different patterns and keys (I think).

What "Fire" does that keeps it so interesting is to make the melody of the chorus so different from the verse even though the chords and rhythm never change.  And because the song doesn't have anywhere to get to (I can see Billy cringing now), a solo or a jam can go on as long at it remains interesting.

Lest one think that drug-influenced music is the only use for this simple pattern, remind yourself that, but for a few brief transitions, "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell and the Drells is a two-chorder, as is Eddie Money's "Baby, Hold On."  If you took all of these songs and listened to them together, I think that you would arrive at the following continuum:

HYPNOTIC VIBE--------------------->GROOVE

And if you think about it, those are not the kinds of feelings one can accomplish in a pattern with a whole lot of busy chords and a chorus different from the verse.

So here's to the two chord song, the lifesaver of nascent garage bands everywhere, but also the basis of great jazz, funk, reggae, and all kinds of world beats.  Actually, one of my very favorites is "Cold Rain and Snow," which I first encountered by way of the Grateful Dead but eventually tracked back to one of its sources, a solo banjo performance with vocal by Obray Ramsey.  It's an incredible kind of story song, with implied violence, and when you play it, you don't necessarily follow a pattern, you just kind of get a feeling when the chords are supposed to change.  That's enough for me.

If you are the commenting type, I'd love to hear what some of your 2-chord favs are.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

It Ain't Got No Words In It: The Magical Mystery of OSTs ETC

At some point in my early teenage years, I realized that listening to music helped me focus when studying. I didn’t get as restless, didn’t get as distracted. This was before, well, every modern portable distraction: tablets, smartphones, Wi-Fi, iPods, or even GameBoys. Basically, if you could keep from turning on the TV or answering the phone, you were good to go.

One of the reasons I listened to a lot of Rush in high school is because their prog-rock albums, especially A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, were heavy on instrumentals with an occasional Geddy Lee screech that made it impossible to want to try and sing along.

It didn’t take long to realize that classical music was a better option. No words whatsoever, and not even any air guitar or air drums calling my name. I bought a pack of six Mozart cassettes for a few bucks, and thus began my long-term love relationship between wordless music and work.

By my senior year, I’d begun moving beyond my cheap classical cassettes and into movie and television score, and by college graduation, I’d built up my own personal canon of pieces:
  • The Mission
  • Mozart’s Serenade for Strings No. 48*
  • John William’s “Greatest Hits”
  • The Princess Bride
  • Glory
  • Rudy
  • thirtysomething
  • Forrest Gump
These were the best of my collection, and they nurtured me through long nights of essay writing, note-taking, studying, and intense reading. Sadly, once I left college, and once my nighttimes became less about work and studying and more about personal time and family time, I left the scores behind. I closed off that whole universe for some 15 years, until Bob reminded me just a few weeks ago that Rocktober was on the horizon, and somehow that got me eventually thinking about that canon of instrumental stuff above. I have no idea why.

I realized how much I’d missed them.

Orchestral movie scores are the closest thing our modern world has to the classical music of the 1700s. They are symphonic pop music, ergo my simpleton's ear is drawn to them. Modern classical music (I don’t even know what it would be called) might be better, or more “classical,” but few ever hear it, and fewer care. Play the first six notes of “I’m Forrest… Forrest Gump” by Alan Silvestri, on the other hand, and good luck finding someone 25-50 who can’t name that tune.

I realized I hadn’t thought of or purchased a movie score since college. Not a one. So I started looking for recommendations, for the best scores of the past 20 years, and finding reliable lists is unusually difficult. Further, I realized that, even more than the musical genres we tend to explore at BOTG, preferences for instrumental music and scores is deeply personal and exceedingly difficult to explain.

My preferences can be defined by the first three scores I sought out: “Inception” (Hans Zimmer), “The Dark Knight Returns” (Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard), and “Star Trek: Into Darkness” (Michael Giacchone). I wanted intensity and testosterone-fueled melodrama. I wanted the sound of a symphony sweating it’s collective ass off, generating a sort of instrumental ball of fire.

But a few days in, I wanted more than just that but had no idea where to go, what to seek. So I posted the question to my Facebook wall, asking people to give me their recommendations for the best instrumental scores of the last 15 years. And I got 75 responses from several dozen people, some of whom couldn’t stop giving me suggestions because the question had rekindled their interests, too.

One friend insisted that I sign up for Spotify immediately to properly enjoy these recommendations, and I caved, and I instantly began crafting a playlist of the best scores and selections from scores recommended to me. Some of the things added due to my Facebook recommendations:
  • The Place Beyond the Pines
  • The Virgin Suicides
  • Dan In Real Life
  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • The Green Mile
  • The Assassination of Jesse James
  • Atonement
  • Tron: Legacy
  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
  • Downton Abbey
What’s missing, reader? What brilliant piece of relatively recent instrumental or symphonic genius is missing from this list? I have rekindled my love affair with this forgotten universe of beauty, and I hunger for more. Feed me your suggestions, and I shall lend them my ear.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Prog Rock Lyrics

I am a prog rock music lover, on the side.  Not as much as I once was, not as able to defend as I might have been, but even closeted, standing alone in a room or riding in a car, I have yet to experience from anyone else the soaring, transcendent beauty of passages, played or sung, that appeared on Yes albums in the 1970's.  Those songs took me places where nothing else before or since has ever taken me.  To this day, I can quote large passages of lyrics to those songs.  The question is: what the hell are they saying?

Many would agree that Close To The Edge, the 3-song Yes masterpiece from 1972 is the pinnacle of their achievement, perhaps of all prog rock.  It had all the trappings of what came to be known as "prog rock"--long songs with multiple sections, superb musicianship, innovative acoustic guitar sections, banks of synthesizers, quirky vocals, and, of course, meta-something lyrics.  Here are opening lines of "Close To The Edge," which set the tone:

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,

And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.
And assessing points to nowhere, leading ev'ry single one.
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun,
And take away the plain in which we move,
And choose the course you're running.

I have no idea what that means.  I can attack it with all of the tools and skills that have come from teaching poetry for over 30 years, and still I come up empty-handed.  I think it's about some aspect of  Maybe.

Or, from Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Karn Evil 9":

Cold and misty morning, I heard a warning borne in the air
About an age of power where no one had an hour to spare,
Where the seeds have withered, silent children shivered, in the cold
Now their faces captured in the lenses of the jackals for gold.

The song is the beginning of a story, but not one that anyone (save the songwriter) can follow.  To be fair, Tommy doesn't make much sense, either, and until the narrative film, I didn't understand a lot of Quadrophenia, either.  Or The Wall.  But it is progressive rock lyrics that really push the boundaries of sense.

If you followed the bands at the time, or poured over their lyrics as I did, or had a few happy coincidences, it wasn't that hard to figure out where the songs' inspirations were coming from.  Jon Anderson from Yes was a big fan of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, and you can hear some of that in Close To The Edge, but only to name check characters or to identify situations.  When he read The Autobiography Of A Yogi that informed the pretentious Tales From Topographic Oceans (double-album, 4 sides, all one song).  And virtually all of the prog rock bands--Yes, ELP, Rush, and others--founds connections between what they were trying to do musically and science fiction.

The sci-fi connection led to all kinds of themed albums and songs, from ELP's computer-takes-over tale of "Karn Evil 9" to Rush's "2012" to any number of trippy-hippy Yes songs, as well as even more-whacked-out solo endeavors.  (I guess I need to admit here--I'm not really a "prog rock" guy; I just like Yes, ELP, and a little Rush.)

The problem was, not unlike other favorite rockers of mine, these songwriters had no one to edit them, no one to say, "That makes absolutely no f-ing sense!  That is just a bunch of cosmic bullshit."  Or maybe the problem was mine for listening to the lyrics and wanting/demanding that they mean something.  Certainly, the music seemed to push the words toward meaning, if only the meaning of what the world is to a confused, romantic, sensitive, introverted teenager.  Maybe if the words inspired the singer to give us his best show because he felt them, that was enough.

But to look at those lyrics now, especially with Internet assistance where I can actually see passages that I couldn't really understand from hearing them, they really are pretty silly.  "In and around the lake/Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there?"  How can that even work?  Are these mountains untethered to the land?  Do they drop down like stalactites?  Almost everyone in the Western world knows those words.  Do they mean anything?

But I don't poke too much fun.  As a high school student, I thought it all meant something.  It certainly seemed to at the time.  And I quoted them all over the girls' yearbooks that I signed on the last day of school:

And you and I climb, crossing the shapes of the morning.
And you and I climb, over the sun for the river.
And you and I climb, clearer, towards the movement.
And you and I called over valleys of endless seas.

What a dreamer, what a lover, what a romancer I was.  I'll be your roundabout.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Can't Find a Better Band?

Is Pearl Jam a Cult Band?

First, when I write “cult band” what I really mean is “a band whose zealot-like fanbase far outsizes their commercial success and, often, their artistic merit.” Or, in other words, “The Grateful Dead.”

Chill out DeadHeads, I’m only pissin’ on you from ignorance.

But seriously, for all of The Dead’s cult following, I’ve never once in my whole life, surrounded by dozens upon dozens of opinionated music-lovin’ peeps (“Is there another kind?” sez Col. Jessup), have I heard someone even half-heartedly include The Grateful Dead in a list of 10 Greatest Rock Bands. Never. And that’s because they’re not even reasonably in the Top 20.

No seriously, just hop to Google and type “Top 10 Rock Bands.” There’s, like, 20 bands listed, and The Dead ain't close. While it's often foolish to rely on the bumbled and botched masses to judge greatness, that list seems more right than wrong, and The Dead ain't on it. And that’s because, beyond their cult following, no one thinks they’re much more than a good reason to smoke pot.

What no one, even I, can argue, is that The Grateful Dead is King of Cult Bands, and there’s not a close second.

While the king of cult bands is indisputably Dead, plenty of others claim to be heirs to their throne. Phish is the band most people think of, but really all Phish did was imitate pretty much everything about The Grateful Dead. (I know Phish Heads don’t want to agree with me, but most of you are so stoned you’ll just laugh about it anyway.)

Other contenders include KISS, Insane Clown Posse (a.k.a. “KISS raps!”), Rush, Frank Zappa, Primus… yawwwwnnnn, this list is boring me. So let’s discuss Pearl Jam’s place on the hill.

Pearl Jam has made one helluva career for itself, fueled by a couple of key traits, most essentially a wicked intensity and a finely-crafted outsider mentality. They also flirt frequently with something like a pop hook, which makes them rare birds in the Cult Band class. But trust me, most any music fan who brings up Pearl Jam in conversation is a huge fan, the kind of fan who seeks out all the live concerts and can identify the difference between “State of Love and Trust” as performed in Topeka in 1998 and the version performed in Alberta in 2001.

(I have no idea whether they performed that song in either place in either year, but rest assured a Pearl Jam cultist would know as confidently as Trekkies can recap plots by episode number.)

Was Pearl Jam too successful to be a Cult Band? If my definition of “Cult Band” is inaccurate, what indeed defines this murky, foggy category of faux-religious zealotry?

The reason I find the fan obsession with Pearl Jam so intriguing is because I’m on the cusp of serious admiration. I’m not a Big Fan, but I wore the grooves out of their first three CDs, and the Temple of the Dog album, and the Singles soundtrack, and back in the day I would have happily engaged in a knife fight with anyone insisting that Nirvana was better than Pearl Jam. Which was a lot of people. So I’m glad it never came to that, or I’d be dead.

But then PJ got all principled against Ticketmaster, which seemed like a righteous fight done in a poor way, and then they released No Code, which sorta sucked, and then Yield wasn’t all that impressive, either, and then I sorta gave up while the zealots persevered.

Their 2006 eponymous release and Backspacer in 2009 are mighty impressive, and I’ve only discovered them in the last couple of years, but I’m still left wondering what in Pearl Jam inspires such a borderline-religious following. If anyone can explain it to me, in pseudo-scientific terms, I’m all ears.

In the meantime, I’m gonna go listen to some more of The Dead and try to figure out what, beyond hallucinogens and good branding, made them such a BFD...

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Did Music Kill The Conversation?

The other day at lunch, a coworker bragged of a family rule he made regarding travel in cars. His rule was simple: if more than one person was in the car, the radio is off and technology is forbidden. If you’re in the car alone, then music is fine, but if even one other person is with you, music did more harm than good. Music and phones create distance and kill conversation.

I’m rarely too eager to judge the rules and regulations of another man’s household, and I respect the ideology and motivation behind this dad's rule. When it comes to smart phones and video games creating a gap between people in shared physical space, the research would without question support his approach.

But where I must differ with him, and differ strongly, is when he includes music as a barrier to family relationships or friendships, be it in a car or in any other shared physical space. In my own parenting, sharing a musical experience with my daughters more often than not brings us closer.

Music is that rare space where the adult isn’t always the expert, where the kid might know just as much, sometimes more, about the musician, the song, the video, whatever. Especially for adolescents, music is a sort of magic key that allows them a passage for introspection, that lets them work through their own emotions. So often, they simply don’t have words for how they’re feeling. It’s all so freakishly new, or so mutated from their childhood feelings thanks to the torments of puberty and the ever-complicating social world of friends and relationships.

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins relays a common angsty teen experience in the Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage where he sits his mother down to listen to “Entre Nous” and encourages her to read along with the lyrics. The song, he explains, has given him insight into their strained and awkward parent-child relationship.

Another classic example is the deleted scene from Almost Famous where main character William and his friend sit their parents down to share with them a song. “This song… will change your life,” he says, with conviction. Except apparently “Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t quite have that effect on Ms. Miller. The scene is agonizing, and I can’t help but feel that I never want to be that parent.

In my mind, the flaws in Corgan's tale and in Almost Famous are found primarily in the moms. They have awkward and intelligent sons attempting to reach out, to share something of what’s going on in their heads and hearts, breaking that stereotype of the unresponsive or non-communicative child, and the parent isn’t willing to work hard enough to understand, is hardly willing to even try.

Some of the most memorable moments in my life are in cars with friends where nothing is said, where the experience is based entirely on the music drowning out all else.

Returning to UNC with a friend where we played The Black Crowes’ Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in its entirety followed by PUMP by Aerosmith. Windows down. Air guitars and air drums in full effect. Palms pounding or strumming the wheel. Notes bellowed out of tune. Lyrics sometimes misinterpreted.

Driving to New Orleans with three friends who introduced me to Patty Griffin’s Living With Ghosts, enraptured by the notion that four guys, bound for a dudes' weekend in a wild city, would savor the shared experience of listening to a sole female voice trilling over a solitary acoustic guitar.

Listening to music often allows parents to broach subjects that might otherwise lie dormant, waiting for an excuse or an opportunity.

On one trip home, Sara Bareilles’ “Chasing the Sun” came on, and it started a conversation about death and dying and the disturbing misuse of the phrase "YOLO." On a longer trip, my eldest shared her self-made soundtrack for the Divergent series, where I was forced to try and appreciate the One Direction song “They Don’t Know About Us,” among other choices.

Is the shared experience of music between parents and children essential? Of course not. But our opportunities to bridge that moat, to connect in any meaningful way possible with our progeny, are not as bountiful or ceaseless as we might like to think.

In fairness, I would be wise to spend more time on longer trips enforcing such a rule. It's too easy and not particularly a family-building exercise when all three kids are watching different movies or listening to different things on their iPods. The wiser approach, to me, should be about intentionality rather than an absolute, knowing when and how to let music be a part of the shared experience rather than shutting that door completely.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Song From The Inside Out

One of the more pleasurable experiences of recent months has been learning to play "Born To Run" by Bruce Springsteen.  I've always known part of it, even parts of it, dating back to 1975-76 when I was in college in Philadelphia and those of us who played our guitars in our dorm rooms and in the stairways felt some obigation, I guess (that doesn't quite capture it), to learn songs from Born To Run on our guitars, even though, I would claim, it is a piano record, not a guitar record.

So we all knew the E-A-B chords to the opening of the song and the verses, with the added notes and takeaways that make it sound kind of like the record.

But when it came time to learn the song as a band for a public performance, we had to master the entire song, or, if not master it, at least get through it.  It was a difficult process.  It's a tough song.

My role was to play the rhythm guitar and to sing it.  Both of those hold different challenges, as you might guess.  As I ultimately grasped the song in my mind, there are 5 different parts to the song--the first part of the verses, the second part of the verses, the chorus, the chords that back the sax solo and get you to the bridge, the bridge itself, and the slight changes in the verse pattern that take the song to its end.  While no one part of the song is particularly difficult, putting all of them together into a coherent song is.

I'm not going to drown you in the minutae of a music theory that I barely understand myself.  Let me just make two general comments: 1) the song gives me a strong appreciation for the songwriting sophistication of Bruce Springsteen (although he largely abandons these complicated structures after the Born To Run album), and, consequently, 2) for Springsteen to get from the chorus to the bridge requires a complication of connecting chords, and these are probably what elevates the song to greatness.

Not to bore you, but most rock songs are built around 2, 3, or at most, 4 chords.  And though they are set in different keys, depending on the band in question, the patterns in which those chord positions are played are pretty similar.  "Born To Run" has about 16 different chords (some of them are variations of major chords) that I can think of in my head.  And how the song gets from the verse/chorus to the bridge is not intuitive to someone like me raised on 3-chord rock.  And though I know hundreds of rock songs and their basic patterns, I have never heard a rock song that moves in the foundational D-G-A-C pattern of the bridge.  Basic rock chords in a whole new way.

To sing the song is even harder.  Even limited singers like me have a "range," as in a series of notes that our throats (because we haven't learned to sing from the diaphragm) are reasonably comfortable singing.  "Born To Run" blows that notion out of the water.  The verses are pretty much built around one middle-of-the road note, but once the song hits "Sprung from cages...," the singer is in a whole new territory and will end up screaming "Woah!" within just a few seconds.  The brdige, while not difficult, is simply in a different place vocally.  

To sing and to play the chords at the same time is a nightmare, albeit a good nightmare, because most of us pretty much know the words and are proud to be singing them.  Still, the song requires the singer/guitarist to be doing two very different things at once, and not two things that are intuitive.  And even though I might know the words, having sung a bunch of Springsteen songs now, I am well aware that he crams as many words as he feels like into any given line, and even if I try to sing it like he does, I'm likely to be both giving up on anything but getting the words spit out and gasping for breath at any given time.

These are not complaints.  Working out "Born To Run" stretched me, stretched the band I play in immeasurably.  There is great joy to be found in standing in a small room with a small group of other people trying to solve a batch of common problems in order to get to a goal.  There is joy to be found in getting to a point where the song sounds somewhat like what it is supposed to sound like, even if you have to brand your version as a kind of "punk" version, punk as in lacking musical sophistication.  And, for me, there is greatest joy in knowing the whole of a song that for nearly four decades I only knew parts of.  Day to day, having that notch on my belt makes my life better.  I'm not kidding.

What is better than an old song become new again?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Mazziest Star

One of my favorite rock storylines is when a band or artist reappears out of nowhere after completely dropping off the map, especially when it's a spectacular return to form.  That's why I'm giddy about the new Mazzy Star CD I've been driving around town with.

Most people who know Mazzy Star, know them from their one "hit", "Fade Into You," a lugubrious maybe love song that might be about feelings that were never noticed or reciprocated by the "you" in question. Or not.

And that is Mazzy Star in a nutshell--subdued, restrained, off-kilter, but probably meaning more than they say, possessing all kinds of musical chops that they are probably not showing off, and, really, just a bit weird.  In both the best way and the worst way,  a listener got the feeling that they were not reaching for anything, especially stardom.

But that was a long time ago, especially in popular music years, even alternative music years.  Now Seasons Of Your Day arrives some 17 years after their previous CD.  Now, the first chance to hear the new one came courtesy of NPR. That's the musical world we are in now.

"In The Kingdom," the opener adds a simple organ riff in front of the trademark reverbed slide guitar.  Hope Sandoval's carry a surprising lightness.  To imagine her singing "Hey, hey" as filler was once unthinkable.  The guitar is always on the move between slides and fills that follow the chord changes. I could listen to this pleasant little song for a long, long time.  "California" undercuts its title with the first strummed minor chord, but on these early songs, Sandoval's voice is not as deep in the reverb as it has been and the mix gives it plenty of space.  One can almost imagine an acoustic Jimmy Page strumming behind a female Robert Plant.  There's a haze here that the song never allows to burn off.  "I've Gotta Stop" drifts into territory occupied by Patsy Cline or Maria McKee of Lone Justice.  It's a lament, but the kind where the singer doesn't really want or believe what she's saying, and Sandoval as teaser is very affecting.  "Does Someone Have Your Baby Now?" initially implies sympathy, but the singer has no interest in supplying sexual consolation.  "Common Burn" may be the best of the bunch, at least musically.  Its mix of guitar, voice, harmonica, slide, and vibes creates a pleasant, summery Neil Young feel that confidently fits on most any playlist format.  The title track is an acoustic guitar and voice rumination that, like several songs on the CD, works the stripped-down approach to great advantage. But my favorite so far is "Lay Myself Down," a driving Grateful Dead type country song with a tambourine and a pedal steel and cryptic lyrics that still work.  After all, this is Mazzy Star.

Luckily, many of the songs are worth waiting for, even for those of us who didn't realize that we were waiting at all.  And it isn't just because of lead singer Hope Sandoval or the persona she conveys.  David Roback, the guitarist and co-songwriter, is simply better than he was.  His blend of electric and acoustic is more separated and engaging, his lead work, riffs, and fills are tastier and more complex.

As for Sandoval herself, it is as if she has returned to remind the current crop of alt-ish female emo-crooners (not a critical term, just a struggle to characterize the genre) where they got their sound from.  In Sandoval's voice and lyrics, in her delivery through a thorough soaking of reverb, I hear everything from Lana Rey's schtick (with subtlety) to even most of what Neko Case is about.

Admittedly, the last few songs on Seasons Of You Day are not as engaging, but then a Mazzy Star CD has never been something you play top to bottom over and over.  I wouldn't even claim they were ever a great band, just a band with some great songs and when all the pieces fit, there was/is no one like them in all their glory.

I don't know why Mazzy Star makes me so happy.  There isn't much happy in the songs.  I don't really tap my foot on the floorboard on hand on the steering wheel to them.  I think it's mostly that storyline, that reminder that there are things that do exist outside of time, or at least outside of the time arcs that we have come to expect--a CD every 2-3 years and when you're done, you're done.

Au contraire, says Mazzy Star.  We live in our own world on our own time and we show up with what we've got when it feels right to us.  Rock has always supported such iconoclasts.  It's good to have them back.  It doesn't change much, but the small pleasure that comes from a batch of pretty good songs is always something.

Churches, or Chuh-VER-Chez, or just CHVRCHES

Day 2 of Rocktoberfest on BOTG...

Every half-decade or so, an album shows up that gives me reason to think synth-pop isn’t the worst thing to ever happen to music. And then that album goes away, and I return to being suspicious and skeptical of the genre.

The 1980s are synth-pop’s salad days, with Devo and Yaz, Howard Jones and Depeche Mode. Even as hard hair rock and rap grew in popularity, New Order and Erasure held out my faith in the late ‘80s that synth-pop wasn’t a total waste. In the ‘90s, it was Jesus Jones and Sunscreem. The Killers and Ladytron (and Ladyhawke) had me reconsidering at the turn of the century, and now, in 2013, Chvrches has earned the genre one more stay of execution.

For all our amazing advances in technology in the last 30 years, there’s hardly a moment in The Bones of What You Believe, Chvrches’ debut album, that couldn’t have been recorded in 1983. The album is like a sonic representation of Back to the Future, simultaneously sounding a few years ahead of the modern musical curve and also stubbornly regressive. Maybe it’s both, and maybe it’s neither.

Yaz’ Upstairs at Eric’s.
Erasure’s The Innocents.
Jesus Jones’ Doubt.

Chvrches’ debut stands a legit chance of joining that pinnacle in my personal all-time favorite synth-pop albums. The first time I heard “Recover” late last spring, they had my attention, and despite my misgivings, they managed to put together a 12-song set that, more often than not, lives up to their hype.

The first seven songs, simply put, bring it. (“Bring it” is the strongest descriptor I can offer for anything that is so utterly drowning in synthesizers.) They cram your ears with bleep-and-chirp pop brilliance, and you have to keep reminding yourself that this band is brand spanking new. The song “Lungs,” the strongest moment of the second half, manages to pile up a mash-up quality of sounds and grunts and heavy synthed-out bass riffs into a monster burger of a pop song.

Don't get me wrong here. If you hate synthesizers, if you have never heard a synth-heavy song that gave you pleasure, I doubt Chvrches will be your Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. It won't, pardon the pun, miraculously inspire you to get churched up. But if you can be swayed, they're worth a few minutes of your time.

Chvrches are often compared to Phoenix and Passion Pit, and for the life of me I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s just a question of taste, and perhaps I have none, but Phoenix and Passion Pit don’t hold a candle to this Scottish trio. The former two might fly their oddball and freak flags a little higher and prouder, but that doesn’t make for better or more consistently impressive music. It just makes them weirder.

“We Sink” might eventually end up as my favorite song on the album. Trapped between their first two singles, the middle in a 3-song set about miserable, dysfunctional, destroyed relationships with a hurt girl still throbbing with bitterness in the aftermath. The chorus goes:

I’ll be a thorn in your side, ‘til you die
I’ll be a thorn in your side, for always
If we sink, we lift our love.

I have absolutely no idea what that last line means. But she means it, dadgummit. I hope that poor boy crossed the pond after breaking her heart, because now she can afford to hunt him down. She might sound small and frail, but you get the sense she might play dirty in matters of the breaking heart.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Two men, shootin' the s*#t, usually over beer, with music in the background. (Yep, it's Rocktober!)

Consider this a shameless, unpaid promotion of a product called Concert Vault, whose wares I rented for one year at $39.95 so that I could access them anywhere on iPhone, iPad, or computer.  Forget Spotify, that musical equivalent of the entire universe where you still only travel to the same planets.  I'm telling you, friends, Concert Vault is where it's at.

(But, I have to take a quick sidebar and say that all of the above is only true if you like live music.  My dancin' partner, Billy, God love him, prefers the studio to the stage, the Aphex Aural Exciter III to the natural sound of the human voice straining to hit the right notes, Garageband to a garage band.  But that's okay.  That's what keeps this blog running, the give and take between us makes Rocktober exciting, at least for me.)

Concert Vault has collected an ever-growing library of live shows from the distant past (1968 is the earliest I've seen, though I haven't looked through the jazz offerings) to the recent past (think 2012) in all kinds of popular genres from rock to country to jazz to pop to reggae to bluegrass to blues to...

There are four kinds of surprises--surprisingly good sound, terrific "liner" notes, reassessments (both of what you thought you liked and what you thought you knew), and there are simply gaps filled.  Early recordings from the Newport Jazz Festival or The Fillmore are often remarkably clean, and if the main instruments are acoustic, even better.  From all that I've sampled so far, I'm comfortable saying that most of these shows are not crappy recordings that exist just to document the historical record; most are easy to listen to.  Anyone who has entered the hit-or-miss world of bootlegs, even today, knows what I'm talking about.

The liner notes tell you everyone who is playing at the performance, as well as, sometimes, a bit of background history of the band, the show, or both.  They may even include commentary about particular songs or standout performances, troubles the band was having at the time, personnel changes, or what was about to happen.

Any number of shows lead you to rethink--people you once liked or didn't sound better or worse than the last time you checked in with them.  Understandings that you had of a particular tour or time period are undercut or enhanced.

Or maybe there are just iconic or not-so-iconic musical events that you never got to hear.  Maybe you've never heard James Brown live or Lennon or the reformed remnants of some "supergroup."  Maybe you didn't know how long or short a set someone played for a charity event or a Rolling Thunder review.  

Here's a sampling of what I've listened to, so far, that should appeal to a variety of constituencies:

James Taylor at Carnegie Hall, 1974.
The Kinks at the University Of Virginia, 1972.
We Were Promised Jetpacks at Outdoor Stage On Sixth, 2012.
Waylon Jennings at Opryland, 1983.
Aerosmith in Central Park, 1975.
Kansas at The Palladium, 1977.
Dave Brubeck Quartet at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1955.
Dave Edmunds and Rockpile at The Bottom Line, 1978.
Gillian Welch at Newport Folk Festival, 2008.
The B-52's at the Heatwave Festival, 1980.
Taj Mahal at Ash Grove, 1967.
Eddie Money at Winterland, 1977.
Blitzen Trapper at Bottom Of The Hill, 2008.
Blood, Sweat, and Tears at North Mesquite High School, 1973.
Bobcat Goldthwait at the Warfield Theater, 1989.

Etc.  That's a smattering.  The breadth of artists is really impressive--you get Blue Mountain, Blue Oyster Cult, Blue Rodeo, the Blues Brothers (yes, they toured), and Blues Traveler.  You get Dylan, Young, and Springsteen.

The collection is not perfect, is not perfectly accessible.  There are bound to be people whom you look for right away and discover that they are not included (yet).  There are a number of artists whose only entries are the Daytrotter recordings.  If you haven't been to that website, they bring people into their own studio and record them live, which gives a listener different takes, but the lack of audience and "warmth" makes for a different, if still enjoyable, "concert" experience.  And there are quite a few performances from Tramps (I'm assuming it's the club in NYC, though they appear to be in a number of different places throughout the world), which don't come with song listings and don't come with liner notes.  Some of those shows are also not broken down by song; you just click "Full concert," and proceed to listen from there.

But, all told, it's a stunning archive, an incredible resource, and the makings of a very fun party game where you just plug it into a speaker and let people flip through it to find the next song.  Come try it out.  Bring beer.  Happy Rocktober!