Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Lioness

Band: Songs:Ohia
Album: The Lioness
Best song: "The Tigress," "The Black Crow" and the title track are all perfect.
Worst song: "Back on Top" isn't great.

(This is long and self-indulgent. So, if you don't want to read it, click this and it'll get you to the home page.)

We're approaching the new year, so, please, indulge my reflection. Let's go back eightish years. To the waining months of 2000 for a minute. George W. Bush and Al Gore were involved in a legal entanglement to see who would ultimately become president of the United States. I was in Journalism 200, the "weed-out" class required to gain entrance into the vaunted University of Missouri School of Journalism.

(I would later find out that half of college is just showing up and graduated journalism school on time and with a pretty good GPA.)

I was basically, assistant Program Director of the KCOU music staff. I was running much of the music staff operations, as the actual PD, let's say, delegated a lot of authority to me. I was doing a lot of heavy lifting and, for the most part, enjoying it.

I'd also, just a few months before, gone through what anyone would call a messy breakup. It's difficult to describe in any coherent way without my sounding like an immature idiot -- the actual breakup wasn't messy, but my reaction to it could charitably be called "childish" -- so, I'll spare the details. The main thing is that my ex-girlfriend and all of her friends hated me for a period -- understandably, no doubt -- and I wasn't feeling great about the whole situation.

As such, I had a big crush on a girl in several of my classes and was not exactly shy about it. Because I'm socially inept, I didn't necessarily ask her out, I just tried to get involved with her new arts newspaper (It sucked. Hard.) and hang out with her and her friends a lot (Her friends sucked. Hard.), including eventually getting my best friend to bet her on the World Series -- a bet he lost and therefore had to pierce his eyebrow (It looked terrible, though hilarious.).

It's a weird period in my life. I was still learning about Columbia and spending the vast majority of my time at the station. I saw a lot of movies at RagTag (often tailing this girl). I was getting into my time as a student, finding my groove as a b-level dude. I got some decent station friends and shed my tendency to idolize my elders at KCOU.

It's during this time that I became a vegetarian. That lasted almost two years. It's during this time that I ended up dating a (different, not the one on which I crushed) girl in which I had no particular interest. It's during this time that I lived in the dorms, yet spent the majority of my time off campus (when not at the station, of course). I started wearing glasses -- as opposed to the contacts I'd worn up until that point. Most of all, though, this was the time that my music taste went from immature to the omnivorous situation I find myself in now.

It was, as it were, the time when I turned into the person I am today. While we are all works in progress, we all have turning points. The year between late 2000 and the fall of 2001 was my big turning point.


The grand regret of my early adulthood is that I never kept a journal or diary for any extended period of time. That's a lie. Rather, I regret that all attempts at journaling were all done online and mostly deleted. Indeed, online journals -- now known as blogs -- last forever in the semipublic view, or at least until the server account is lost or whatever.

My regret for not journaling (or not keeping a copy of those journals) is that I have a strange obsession for my former self. No doubt this is led by my massive ego and self-centeredness, but I also like to think it has something to do also with self-reflection and introspection. What kind of person have I grown to be? How does that compare to a younger me? What does that say about the aging process, my experiences and the human experience? I wish I had a clearer view into my mind during those times, because I'm sure my recollection is different from the realities.

As such, when I did journal online, I mostly was taking my frustrations out on the world. Often, it was decidedly messy, immature and regrettable. Indeed, I now wish it never ended up on the Web, not only because I took all that stuff down and therefore have no window into a 19-year-old Ross, but rather because it sullied relationships I cherish in hindsight.

And as such, self-reflection is needed. Why did I feel the need to post everything on the Web far before Blogger, Livejournal and Typepad were accessible? Was it because I could? Was it because I wanted validation for my feelings? Was I simply searching for attention?

I don't know the answers to those questions and, eight years out, I don't know that I ever will. I still write on the Web, but they're almost entirely these masturbatory ramblings or my RS project or whatever. I think I've learned my lesson.

Indeed, there is a LiveJournal I keep, though it rarely sees a "real" posting. It's one of the more cherished things I have (if having a username and password denotes ownership). I started posting in it the summer before my girlfriend went to study abroad (senior year) and kept posting actual thoughts and such in it for more than two years.

I often reread it and marvel at the differences between me at 21-24 and me now. Age-22 Ross was full of optimism and hope. I had goals -- specifically to be an editor or columnist on a major sports page -- and I had the delightful self-centeredness of youth to power the journal. Indeed, here's a quote from April, 2003:

I almost got hit by a bike again today. I'm really tired of the bikers on this stupid campus. They have absolutely no regard for those of us walking. I cannot stand bicycle riders. In fact, I believe I wrote a column about it.

Oh, well. I'm off to go and discuss the "Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of Real." I haven't seen the movie in years, nor have I done the reading. I'm hoping we can talk about cloning or the ethics of cyber organics.

You never know.

That's the bulk of the entry. It's got all the highlights of any vapid online journal of a 22-year-old. Self-promotion. Self-absorption. Banal details of one's life. Schoolwork updates. The final up-in-the-air artfully detached sentence/paragraph.

It's the picture of a different person. The level of self-awareness is so low that this person actually thought that someone needed to know that he hadn't done the reading for his cyborg class and that he could negate much of the proceeding paragraph with a simple "You never know." It's someone with self-confidence. Someone lacking the simple barrier of the thought "hey, maybe you're writing about yourself too much."

And you know something? I like that guy. I like him a lot. I think he's got a freshness and an optimism that I find lacking in the adult world. I miss him terribly, but I think he's gone or has morphed into something entirely different and equally as self-absorbed.

At least that guy was funny and talked about poop or expounded on the nature of relationships, a concept that escapes me now.


I'm similarly self-absorbed now. I think the downfall of my early college online journaling was that I was more interested having people read what I wrote. I think I was looking for validation in some form -- again, this was before comments on posts, as no blogging software was widespread yet. In true self-obsessed emo fashion, I desperately wanted to have my feelings validated by my friends, the people involved, whoever.

I guess my current situation is more based on my own confidence.

(Time to hop on the couch...)

One thing age has given me is a sense of realism. I'd say I have a much more accurate view of myself now than I did at 22, largely because I've spent the vast majority of my time thinking about myself (again, self-absorbed). I know I'm not going to be Lester Bangs or Tony Kornheiser or David Eggers or Chuck Klosterman or whoever. And as each day goes by, there's a smaller chance that I'll do any of the things they do.

Indeed, that is part of the Web's greatness. I don't have to know someone at a publishing house to write a book, as you can self-publish with I don't have to know someone at RS or Pitchfork or wherever to write about music. I do it here. I may not get an audience -- I almost certainly don't have one -- but I can certainly put my writing out there. If one person reads it, I'm happy. If no one reads it, I'm happy.

And as such, I've sort of come to terms to my reality: I'm just a dude. I'm not going to be someone famous or important or whatever. I'm just a guy who works for a magazine and has a few hobbies. And that's kind of where I put this project, the RS project and, oddly, my softball team.

There's an excellent documentary called Darkon about a bunch of -- yes, I'll say it -- nerds who participate in LARP, live action role playing. These -- again, I have no problem saying this -- nerds are just regular dudes in real life. They work in IT or they're store clerks or they work in gas stations or they're stay-at-home-dads or whatever. But, every weekend, these guys are knights and kings and emperors. They control "countries" and "subjects." They command "armies." At least in their own minds and certainly in the game.

(Really, though, they're just nerds dressed like morons running around a field with Nerf swords.)

This is softball to me. Every day, I work at a job I enjoy, but it it ultimately, my job. My delusions of grandeur are not absent and being a lower man on the company ladder does not satisfy this need. However, every Sunday from April to early November, I find myself dressing like a moron with expensive equipment acting like I'm playing in the seventh game of the World Series. I wear batting gloves and baseball pants. I have high socks. I slide. A lot.

There's no difference, by the way, between those two. I play softball to role play some sort of baseball dude. I'm really just a short, fat guy in a ridiculous outfit, but in my mind, I'm fucking A-Rod.

For many of us, our profession is where we find out value. For others, it's in family. I love my job, but I do not define myself by it. My family is not how I define myself, either (that is as diplomatic as I'm going to be about that one). For me, it's my hobbies. I play softball. I write album reviews no one reads. I write about myself.


The Web provides my outlet for this, as do my friends, often acting as a sounding board to my nonsensical ramblings. And, as such, we have this: An opus of self-absorption that serves no one.

Indeed, I don't know the point of my recounting my personal journey from jolly self-hating misanthrope to more reserved, conservative adult guy. I guess it's to get to this idea: Music soundtracks all these experiences.

Sometime around my first two years at the station, I learned to love Jason Molina and his Songs:Ohia. Molina's music is both referential and entirely unique. Comparisons are difficult to pin on the band, as Molina's guitar-based rock could easily fall into many genres. His singer/songwriter thing has been compared to Will Oldham, but the brightness and country aspects of Oldham's work is far afield of Molina. Molina's misanthropy in his lyrics are often compared to Bill Callahan, but Callahan's smirk reflects an irony that Molina does not appear to enjoy. Moreover, the direction of Callahan's lyrics are dynamic, while Molina mostly addresses himself.

The most interesting aspect of Molina's sound -- save for his deadpan baritone -- is the sound he cultivates on his masterwork, The Lioness. It's near-impossible to put your finger on it, but the entire album sounds as though it was recorded in the middle of the night. It's dark and sad. Melodies ring and tempos slow.

"Being in Love," for example, has the organ sound of a post-rock record and the drum beat of the slowest dance song in music history. Molina intones the song's ominous opening line: "Being in love means you are completely broken." "Coxcomb Red" is the most sparse of the album's songs, with a simple guitar progression backing Molina's note of lost love ("Every love is your best love and every love is your last love/
And every kiss is a goodbye").

"Coxcomb Red" shows Molina's other main theme on the album: The use of animal metaphors to explain the world. "Coxcomb Red" uses color ("your hair is coxcomb red your eyes are viper black"), while the album's title track and "The Tigress" shows Molina's view of women ("of that look of the lioness to her man across the Nile" and "you are alert as a tigress at a common table with her fate") that borders on sexism.

(Molina's ending lyric of "The Tigress" shows this apparent sexism: "and I believe every woman has made up her mind to win.")

The album's opus, however, is the opener, "The Black Crow." The song is what once made me describe Molina's songwriting as a "suicide note set to music." The song nearly defines the word "driving." The guitar line begins and builds until the song's climax, seven minutes later.

Molina's lyric is deeply veiled, but contains the one classic Molina-ism on the entire album: "I’m getting weaker I’m getting thin/I hate how obvious I have been" as the guitar continues, like a railroad car.

I saw Songs:Ohia my sophomore year of college -- my defining year -- at Washington University and the band ended with this song. I'll never forget watching Molina and the band envelope the crowd with sound and that outro riff -- that glorious, low-end riff with accompanying drum sound. I never wanted that song to end.

It's the type of album you listen to when you feel like shit. It's not technically impressive like a Tortoise record or necessarily pleasant like the Nada Surf record. It doesn't bring the highs and lows of a Death Cab record nor does it explore the ordinariness of Elliott Smith's best work. It doesn't deal with the inevitability of death or the pressures of the modern world.

It's an album about being down and we all need that sometimes.


I'm 27 years old. I live in a city 700+ miles away from where I grew up. I'm pretty low on the ladder of a magazine. I am dating someone who I truly enjoy and care about, though my confusion over our non-relationship relationship is ever-present. I have friends, though, often, I question the nature of these friendships. I am studying to get my Master's Degree, though I'm not sure I understand what benefit that will garner. I am far too serious about softball.

And how did I get here? Certainly, the experiences over the last five (in the case of my Liveournal) or eight (in the case of my first online journal) years have shaped me. My college experiences and academic training. My relationships, both romantic and platonic. The shitstorm that is my family. Moving out to Washington to pursue goals, only to have them shift.

Mostly, though, I've learned this: Self-absorption's grandest side effect is loneliness. Maybe that's an obvious statement. But, only the man who finds himself to be fascinating all the time can hang with that man all the time. That, sadly, has been me. It has been me far too often.

I have a friend -- I actually haven't talked to her in some time -- who had (has) a serious codependency thing going on. She, back many years ago, tried to explain to me how she would rather hang out with someone she didn't really like on a weekend night than do stuff alone. I found this mind-boggling at the time.

While I still think it to be a foolish position -- one needs to be comfortable with oneself -- I understand it more now. I've grown to be incredibly selfish in the four-plus years since my ex-girlfriend and I broke up, as I have spent the vast majority of time alone, with a few close friends and fewer outlets. It's an odd post-college thing and one that I'm glad that I'm aware of.

I've started to become more conservative in the "people should follow the rules" way. I've become quieter, more calm. I'm certainly happier with myself, but there is a question as to if I'm actually moving forward. Maybe I've stagnated.

But, maybe not. Maybe I'm in a place where I can understand my place in the world better (I'm not going to be David Eggers or whoever). But, maybe I can better understand what I can be. And part of that -- in the most self-absorbed aspect of it all -- is to enjoy the things I enjoy. Not to worry about it so much. Think a little less about my worries and just enjoy the sunshine and cheeks that is my current non-girlfriend.

You never know.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Dust of Retreat

Band: Margot & the Nuclear So and So's
Album: The Dust of Retreat
Best song: "Talking in Code" and "Skeleton Key" are fantastic. "Quiet as a Mouse" is wonderful. "Dress Me Like a Clown" is nice.
Worst song: "Paper Kitten Nightmare" is stupid.

I used to have XM Radio, largely because terrestrial radio sucks -- especially in DC -- and also because I wanted to listen to baseball games. It was great for my old job, because I had to drive to my old job everyday. Anyway, one of the many stations I enjoyed on XM was XMU, which was supposed to be the indie rock/college radio station-style station.

XMU mostly sucked when I listened to it, though I imagine I hold that view because XMU played a whole lot of Helio Sequence and not much post-rock. However, I did try to like it and was rewarded with Margot & the Nuclear So and So's.

Margot & the Nuclear So and So's are not Battles. Not even close. Richard Edwards doesn't do much outside of standard rock instrumentation, save for the well-placed cello on the record's best tracks. Similarly, his voice isn't worlds different from the usual indie rock whisper.

But, The Dust of Retreat has that wonderful mix of melancholy and sweet only found in certain brands of indie rock. The album's lyrics deal with the slightly regretful ("Jen is Bringin' the Drugs"), the sad ("Dress Me Like a Clown") and the mildly vitriolic ("Vampires in Blue Dresses"), all while keeping an earnestness to be admired.

"Skeleton Key" exemplifies this well. The song's regretful opening lines ("I did a sick, sick thing to my love/My lack of loyalty, it swallowed her up.") falls into a drunken explanation ("And I miss you less and less everyday/This stream of whiskey helps to wash you away."), eventually ending up in vitriol ("And it's clear to see/You're nothing special/You're a skeleton key."). The song's overall breakup message is nearly universal and beautifully bathed in a cello melody line and a lilting acoustic guitar part, all led by Edwards' sweet voice.

The rest of the album follows suit, largely. "Dress Me Like a Clown" is a nice little "Skeleton Key" knockoff. "On a Freezing Chicago Street" is more upbeat and powerful, while "Quiet as a Mouse" features a half-aggressive Edwards asserting himself ("When I awoke/I was alive in somebody's room/I felt life and love and hope infesting my bones/Wake up, you've got a lot of things to do/Wake up, the sun is rising without you.") after a one-nighter.

The album's other highlight is the penultimate song on the set, "Talking in Code," another breakup song, from the other side. The song begins as a simple singer/songwriter bit, but builds as Edwards recounts the veiled conversations between lovers as the end nears. The song breaks down as Edwards intones the final bits:

And your voice cracks with the lack of piano
you keep moving, where are you going?
Baby, were long gone
Yeah, were long gone

Like "Skeleton Key," it's a spot on breakup record, finding lost love in a cello and building guitars. Edwards' gift, albeit not revolutionary, is extracting those small relationship pieces and turning them into wonderful songcraft.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Band: Nada Surf
Album: Lucky
Best song: "See These Bones" and "Weightless" are excellent. "I Like What You Say" is pretty good.
Worst song: It's all pleasant.

Nada Surf's transformation from novelty rock act (They were the band that did "Popular," after all) to moderately successful indie rock band is kind of interesting. For one, it is the first thing every Nada Surf review mentions with the review then veering into "My Iron Lung" territory.

(Let me explain)

Radiohead's "My Iron Lung" is a song, basically, written about a song. The titular metaphor refers to Radiohead's "Creep," a song that both sustained Radiohead in their early years and stuck them in a metal box. Everyone only wanted to hear "Creep" and had little interest in other stuff.

Nada Surf has a similar problem with "Popular," even twelve years out. While Radiohead turned into Pink Floyd, Nada Surf mostly turned into a faceless indie rock band. They're Kind of Like Spitting or Say Hi To Your Mom, with far better hooks.

Indeed, Nada Surf's fifth album has wonderful hooks. "Whose Authority" is something Matthew Sweet would've put out five years ago while "From Now On" is easily the best Gin Blossoms-sounding song ever released. "I Like What You Say" is easy and smooth, while "Here Goes Something" is a nice tale of love.

The problem with Lucky is that the songs come to the precipice of greatness, but cannot finish the job. "I Like What You Say" has a wonderful chorus, but the middle eight falls apart. "Weightless" is a cool waltz that never really gets off the ground and falls in love with its Flaming Lips-influenced atmospherics too much. Despite its lows, its highs are better than nearly anything else on the record.

"See These Bones" is the album's best track, does the near-impossible in writing about aging while still sounding inspiring. The song's lyrics could double as a warning to the young, as sung by an elder:

Look alive, see these bones
What you are now, we were once
And just like we are, you'll be dust
And just like we are, permanent

It's haunting and pretty, while absolutely light enough to seem a pop song. Better than "Popular," it is Nada Surf's best and most lasting song.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Oh, Inverted World

Band: The Shins
Album: Oh, Inverted World
Best song: "Caring is Creepy" is amazing, as is "Girl on the Wing" and the "Celibate Life."
Worst song: "The Past and Pending" is nice, but not great.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not enjoy this album when it was first released. Well. That's a lie. I thought it was just OK, but nothing special. I was in the midst of spending a summer in my college's town (I kind of can't believe Darwin Hindman is still mayor!) and doing work for the newspaper there (it is part of the University's requirements to graduate from the journalism school). My girlfriend and I had just broken up -- no big deal, as it was a relationship of convenience -- and most of my friends were gone for the summer. Similarly, it was my first semester as program director of the station. So, for all my lakc of social stuff, I was pretty busy.

That's not to discount my idiocy, it's just a snapshot in time.

If I remember correctly, I fancied Oh, Inverted World as an Elephant Six ripoff; I saw it as something that aspired to be Pet Sounds when it was really just some dudes from New Mexico trying to sound cooler than they were/are.

That was, shall we say, a very stupid thing to think.

Oh, Inverted World is a majestic album, lyrically. James Mercer and co. are adept at weaving literate metaphors into sunshine pop arrangements. Indeed, the album has wears its influences on its sleeve -- there is no doubt that the band takes Pet Sounds to heart -- but it similarly creates something new in Mercer's unique voice.

"Caring is Creepy" is stilted and cool, while "Know Your Onion!" has the melodies of an indie record and a beautiful harmony line. "The Celibate Life" is the kind of near-interstitial song that would steal any other album, were it not for the quality of the rest of the album. "Girl on the Wing," driven by a monster keyboard line, is one of the album's highlights, as the band shows its faster rock chops.


"New Slang" has one of the best videos I've ever seen (the band recreates classic indie rock album covers!), but has one of the weirdest gestations of any song. Though it one ofalbum's preceeding singles, the song did not become much until Zach Braff -- more on him in a bit -- included the song in his monstrosity Garden State.


Zach Braff is a very successful person and someone whose work I -- albeit begrudgingly -- enjoy in the way of the first five seasons of Scrubs. I think his character on that show is wonderful and the picture of a fun comedic foil. Though I have some problems with my love of the show -- namely, the overarching bullshit emotions Braff lays out over some middlebrow claptrap Keane song in the final moments of the show -- I do think he does good work. But, I'm sorry, Garden State is trash. It's complete sewage. It's what Wes Anderson would make were he retarded. It's poorly composed and stupid.

"New Slang" -- and the band -- gained a lot of popularity from the song's inclusion on the film's soundtrack. Indeed, in the movie Natalie Portman -- you cannot convince me that Braff didn't write that movie for any reason other than to write scenes in which he makes out with my dream woman -- hands Braff a pair of headphones playing "New Slang" and tells him "It'll change your life."


My problem with Braff is that he exemplifies middlebrow claptrap. Braff's half-witted emo philosophy at the end of the very episode of Scrubs is full of common sense bullshit (you know, love is hard and shit), but thrown out there like it's goddamned Socrates. Like Pete Yorn, Travis and the like (sadly, my beloved Death Cab for Cutie fall here), the emotion therein is true, but it's retarded. It's Titanic: Populous nonsense dressed up as depth.

The Shins toe this line very often. Shins fans (specifically those born of Garden State), by and large, are idiots. This is why I don't go to Shins -- or Wilco, by the way -- shows anymore. The band is great and literate and interesting, but the fanbase seems only to want to hear the (sorta) hits and stare longingly into their boy/girlfriends' eyes when they hear them.

Fuck that. I'm going to go listen to Priest.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Every Day and Every Night

Band: Bright Eyes
Album: Every Day and Every Night
Best song: "A Perfect Sonnet." No question.
Worst song: "Neely O'Hara" is probably a little long.

As with many bands popular at my college radio station when I was there, Bright Eyes is one I initially dismissed. He played in Columbia my freshmen year for our annual birthday party show series (and put on a decent show), but many reasons (he's only a year older than I am, his fanbase was mostly the skinny jeans set, the premature comparisons to Dylan, etc.) kept me from embracing his music. Mostly, his vocal style really didn't appeal to me.

So, all throughout college, I stayed away form Mr. Oberst and his cohorts. It took the LIFTED album for me to even embrace one song of his ("Waste of Paint") and even then, I did so reluctantly.

Since graduation, though, I've come to enjoy some of his work. Oberst, as a singer and guitar player, isn't wonderful. His warbling gets annoying and it mostly plays improperly on anything other than the sensitive-guy stuff he mostly plays. Example: His free "When the President Talks to God" single. That thing sucked.


Every Day and Every Night is Oberst's third record. It's an EP recorded and released when he was 19. It has all the hallmarks of Oberst recording, including his crescendoing warble-scream on "On My Way to Work," Oberst's everyday song. "A New Arrangement," a wanton recitation of a relationship's change/end, is soft and easy, without Oberst's signature dynamics. "A Line Allows Progress, a Circle Does Not" speaks the pressures and sadness of addiction over a simple guitar line. "Neely O'Hara" is a long-winded, albeit pretty good, experiment that doesn't utilize Oberst's best gifts.


Songwriting, inherently, is a tough thing to do well and to make a cohesive, evocative song that doesn't sound ridiculous. To write a song that can actually utilize interesting structures is amazing.

"A Perfect Sonnet" is this song.

Singing with an undying urgency and striking passion, Oberst writes in a vague sonnet form (not really) of lost love. Oberst's strength is his fantastic vindictiveness that eventually comes to a head with acceptance and love for those he despises.

But, the key to the song is the parallel structure thing he does with the chorus lyrics, using similar lyrics as to each philosophical stage he encounters.

But I believe that lovers should be tied together
And thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather
And left there to drown
Left there to drown in their innocence

I believe that lovers should be chained together
And thrown into a fire with their songs and letters
And left there to burn
Left there to burn in their arrogance

Now I believe that lovers should be draped in flowers
And laid entwined together on a bed of clover
And left there to sleep
Left there to dream of their happiness

By using such a structure -- and a dynamic slowdown for the final one -- Oberst is able to emphasize the song's writing while backing up its meaning. His nod to love being something we envy in others is gorgeous and fits his adolescent voice.

Moreover, the song is based in a tidal wave of guitar and band, utilizing four chord to pound the chorus' melody into a listener's head (the chorus and verses have the same melody, basically). It's a wonderful pop trick and catchy as all hell.

Music like this is tough to pull off, no doubt. It's mature -- the evolution is, certainly -- and a very introspective look at relationships in a way most songwriters do not touch. As with LIFTED's "Waste of Paint" -- his other opus -- Oberst touches on humanity in a way that is seldom seen in music.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Frame & Canvas

Band: Braid
Album: Frame & Canvas
Best song: "A Dozen Roses" is among the band's best work.
Worst song: "I Keep a Diary" isn't great and is sort of a cliche.

To quote the best show on TV, post-hardcore/second-wave emo is in the past, like Frankenstein and broadcast television. The hiperati of today likely look fondly at the days of Texas is the Reason, the Promise Ring, Sunny Day Real Estate and Braid, but those looks back are few and far between. Indeed, the genre has been largely forgotten.

But, there was a time when emo meant a little more than it does now -- not much -- thanks to bands like Braid. This was a time when hoodie sweatshirts, cuffed jeans and the Buddy Holly glasses were a fashion statement, when you could make fun of a kid for being "super emo" because he rode a scooter (with a Braid sticker on it) around my college town, has greasy black Prince Valiant hair, wore high-water jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. This wasn't the norm.

Those days are long gone and the music flourishes it spawned remain somewhat, but it's important to remember the salad days of second wave emo and the genre's best two bands: Sunny Day Real Estate and Braid.

Today, we tackle Braid's epic masterpiece, Frame & Canvas.

The particular brand of emotional rock of the mid to late 1990s was that based out of the Milwaukee-Champaign corridor that runs through Chicago. Milwaukee gave us Pele, Camden and the Promise Ring, while Chicago/Urbana brought us Sarge, Seam, Braid, Hum and others. Braid was the best of this type of music, merging post-hardcore styles with sincere singing/shouting.

I remember on first hearing Smoking Popes -- a band I still consider the proto-second-wave emo group -- that their sound was unique. The Popes combined punk rock guitar, drums and bass with a singer who clearly wanted to sound like Morrisey. Or Robert Goulet.

Braid took this formula and took adolescent punk rock out of the mix in lieu of first-wave emo's hardcore. Taken out are the Superchunk-esque little solos and added are the angular guitar lines.


Like many great bands -- hello, Mastodon! -- Braid uses a dual vocalist situation to hammer out the oustanding conversational lyrics Bob Nanna and Chris Broach wrote. Decidely Midwestern, the album drops middle American cities and landmarks ("Milwaukee Sky Rocket," "Urbana's Too Dark," etc.) while maintaining an edgy sound. The opening track begins with a sound of a muffled drum sound before the guitars roar in and Nanna starts to wail.

"Killing a Camera" is among Braid's best work, if only for its wildly catchy stutter beat and shifting rhytyhmsn. "Never Will Come for Us" and "I Keep a Diary" are things on which stereotypes are built, unfortunately, but remain solidy songs. "Milwaukee Sky Rocket" is fast and passionate (while featuring a solid Broach vocal on the verses), while "First Day Back" is a slow build.

"Urbana's Too Dark" has a wonderful drum-based lead line and a solid metaphor-as-song lyric that speeds up as the song progresses. The song feeds off its predecessor on the album, "A Dozen Roses," a beautiful sad love song featuring the band's best lyric:

Was it clear?
'Cause i just wrote a letter
A confession down the ladder
That things could be so much better

Strong and passionate, the song recounts the other-woman-as-reason as strongly as the normally opague Braid could do.


Braid's catalog is a strong one, but Frame & Canvas is the band's best album. It, sadly or not, reflects a time before the Internet, before the expansion of music into the digital world. It was a more innocent, spastic time, but one I look back upon fondly.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Blood Mountain

Band: Mastodon
Album: Blood Mountain
Best song: "The Wolf is Loose" is pretty great. "Siberian Divide" is strong, also. But, "Colony of Birchmen" is the best song on the album and one of the band's best tracks (in a catalog full of great tracks, by the way).
Worst song: There isn't really a bad song on the album, but "Hand of Stone" isn't as strong as the rest of the record.

Being a fan of a metal band requires a certain suspension of disbelief, childish acceptance and general "looking-the-other-way." Metal is, in and of itself, ridiculous, macho and pompous. Most decent metal bands spend their lyrics waxing philosophical on crap they know nothing about(Metallica), create ridiculous characters in fantastical worlds (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, etc.) or both (Mastodon).

Inded, Mastodon's third proper album is full of ridiculous characters wrapped in a tortured metaphor as explained by bassist/singer Troy Sanders as being "about climbing up a mountain and the different things that can happen to you when you're stranded on a mountain, in the woods, and you're lost." In a YouTube clip, he compares the albums' struggle to the band's, saying that the metaphor of searching for the Crystal Skull as the band searching for its place in the music world.


It's a tough pill to swallow, as a listener. If one had never heard the album, it would be easy to see it as pompous nonsense. I'm not going to disavow that idea; it probably is pompous nonsense. Still, it is closer to a near-perfect metal album, despite not even being the band's best.

Blood Mountain is a furious attack of musicianship, alternating growl/sing vocals and monster riffs. As with the best metal, the vocals are simply an instrument in the whole of the song -- don't listen to the lyrics. Sanders' more melodic vocals provide a contrast to the rapid-fire guitar work of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher, while Hinds' vocal work is more Ozzy/Halford-esque in its sinister bite.

The album's fury is nearly impossible to contain, as the record begins with Brann Dailor -- probably the best drummer in rock music -- unleashing a solo to start "The Wolf is Loose." Stuttering time changes and vocal styles, "The Wolf is Loose" is powerful and manic. The song runs into another Dailor drum thing, this time it's the drummer pounding on 50-gallon drums to start "Crystal Skull," the album's second track. The song is equally as heavy as "The Wolf is Loose," though, admittedly, it's more of a Sabbath-esque driver than a thrashing quick study. The song's harmonized guitar solo reminds one of the best of 1970s rock and the end of the song sounds like the best Metallica ever had (back in the 1980s, not now) to offer.

"Siberian Divide" has the band in a move contemplative mood. While not as evocative as Leviathan's "Aqua Dementia," the song has Sanders' best soft vocal running into the crunch of the song's chorus and back to Sanders growling. The low end of the song is its strength, as the atmospheric guitar work of Kelliher and Hinds fills the song. Mars Volta/At The Drive-In singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala fills out

The song's two other singles -- "The Wolf is Loose" was the second single -- are similarly strong. Hinds' ridiculous guitar parts in "Capillarian Crest" -- his first instument was the banjo -- move around the guitar like snake, eventually turning into a cacophony of soloing. Dailor's fills echo the complicated guitar lines.

Of course, the album's highlight is a song I adore, "Colony of Birchmen." Titled as an ode to Genesis' "Colony of Slippermen" (from the sublime The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Dailor's favorite album of all time), the song hits all of reasons Mastodon is a great band. Hinds' verse vocals are snarling and evocative, while Sanders growls and croons the chorus (with some help from Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme). The guitar lines crunch during portions and fill arpeggios during the chorus, while Hinds destroys a building solo that crescendos as the song comes to a close. And of course, Dailor destroys a drum line full of cymbal work, double bass drum and striking fills.

I've listened to this song somewhere around 200 times since the album came out in late 2006, if you include all the times I've watched live videos of the band playing it on YouTube and, more importantly, all the times I've played it in Rock Band 2. The song is brilliant, but it adds to the wonder of Rock Band.

You see, the first Rock Band game had a lot of great songs, but none of my favorites and no favorites that were fun to play (I like "Highway Star" a lot, but it's not tons of fun on the drums, my preferred instrument). But, the glory of "Colony of Birchmen" -- and Foo Fighters' "Everlong," for that matter -- is that the song is amazing, making me want to play it more, which makes me want to listen to it more.

Indeed, it's a testament to the song's longevity and quality that I can listen to it so many times and still find new things to enjoy about it.


I love concept albums and rock operas, but the storyline of Blood Mountain is patently ridiculous. The final track, "Pendulous Skin" has a plot element wherein the main character eats himself.

Yeah, that's ridiculous.

If you are able to just hear the lyrics the same way you'd hear a guitar part -- notes and nothing more than notes -- than you can fully appreciate the genius that is Blood Mountain. It's not the band's best -- Leviathan and it's inspiration taken from Moby-Dick -- but it's one of the best albums of the past five years by the greatest metal band on earth.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Band: Yes
Album: Fragile
Best song: "Roundabout" is a fantastic record.
Worst song: "We Have Heaven" isn't great.

One of the rituals did for DJs at KCOU during training was the music staff training meeting. As the PD, I ran this meeting, which was intended to explain KCOU's format to DJs. Part of the ritual was to have the DJs go to the stations' library of CDs and records to pick three albums and explain why they loved said records.

Now, obviously, this is a partial step in the judgment of these kids. The music staff and training execs want to see if the freshman have anything other than entirely mainstream tastes and, moreover, can actually talk about the music they enjoy.

As a freshman DJ, I chose the first Mogwai album, a Smog record and... I don't remember. I really should remember that third one, but I don't. Anyway, I sort of talked about post-rock and how much I enjoyed Mogwai, but ultimately, I prefer Tortoise.

As an exec, I spent two and a half years doing these training sessions, so I probably did 7 or 8 of them. I always used the second Death Cab for Cutie album as one of the three because I held up my relationship with the record as a success story of the station.

(Back story before you read that story: At KCOU, reviews were, essentially, taped to the front of the CDs. A key part of most reviews was the notion of comparing the CD to other, similar bands and bolding the similar bands in the review. So, someone might write "This record has strains of the Cat Power mixed with a Sonic Youth guitar sound." It makes it easier for DJs to discover new things. Similarly, the reviewer would highlight top tracks from the album and those which could not be played, due to FCC rules.

Here's the Death Cab story: The second semester of my sophomore year, I had a 1-4 Friday shift. No college radio DJ times his or her music perfectly to end with his or her shift, so there's normally some space to just throw something on that could work. Because I was a total kiss ass, I normally took new stuff from format.

One Friday in early April, I grabbed a record by a band with a funny name and read the review. The reviewer was a guy I idolized (the PD my freshman year) and he wrote a longish piece that explained the record's familiar yet diverse sound by dropping names of many bands I enjoy. Dinosaur Jr. Elliott Smith. Modest Mouse. So, I threw on one of the highlighted tracks and stopped immediately. I could not believe how good this song was. I took note of the band name and the album name and bought it the next time I was in Chicago. I remember it like it was yesterday.)

I normally chose a new record as my second record to present to the DJs-in-training, just to highlight the new music we had at the station. The third record rotated in theme, but for a spell, I almost always took out one of three albums: King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Yes' Fragile.

My progressive rock phase never really stopped, but it really blossomed my senior year of college when I got way into those three records. It stemmed from a few magazine pieces I'd read claiming -- rightfully, probably -- comparing Tortoise (and the entire post-rock genre) to progressive rock. It turned me onto King Crimson and Yes -- I was already a fan of Gabriel-era Genesis.


All the criticisms of progressive rock hold true. Often, it's complicated solely for the same of being complicated. Most of the time, the subject matter of the music falls somewhere between the patently ridiculous (In the Court of the Crimson King) and the totally absurd (The Genesis albums about greek mythology or the alien weirdness of Lamb). Nearly all the songs are far too long. The concept album is overused and the genre tops are often nerdy.

None of those criticisms are incorrect. Indeed, it makes for interesting listening and a worthwhile experience. I like prog rock because it has all those things, though I often hold my nose thinking about the songwriting process for these bands ("Hey, Phil, how about a song about the Foundtain of Salmacis?" "Is Salmacis the naiad that tried to rape Hermaphroditus?" "Of course."). Overall, it's fun to follow the lyrics, pick out the wacky time changes and really deconstruct the music.

This is, of course, why I'm such a fan of Pink Floyd, progressive rock's greatest triumph. The band never fell into wizardry, dragons and Greek mythology to write songs. Moreover, the band's ear for hooks and melody is lost on far too many prog bands.

While cooking dinner with a friend -- a friend not entirely familiar with Pink Floyd -- I was giddy with excitement in describing the greatness that is Dark Side of the Moon. I enumerated the lyrical theme of the album -- Floyd was never a stranger to the concept album -- and the greatness that is the album's melding of the themes and the band's music. My friend looked at me like I was crazy and that was the end of that.

Anyway, Fragile has its Dark Side moments. The singles, "Roundabout" and "Long Distance Runaround" are both eminently catchy and easy to enjoy. The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)" is very interesting and shows Chris Squire's ample songwriting ability. "Hartt of the Sunrise" is an opus, but a good one and worthwhile when one is in the mood.

But, as with all prog rock, the album is a little bloated and inaccessible. Outside of the singles, the album is not hummable at all and the songs make for difficult sing alongs. Overall, progressive rock is what it is; a fun way to pass the time, but hardly the music to soundtrack our lives.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Colour and the Shape

Band: The Foo Fighters
Album: The Colour and the Shape
Best song: The best three songs on this album -- or any Foo Fighters album, for that matter -- are "Everlong," "Everlong" and "Everlong."
Worst song: "Doll" is a stupid opener. "New Way Home" is dumb. "Up in Arms" isn't great.

In my "Done" piece over at the RS Project, I mentioned that the RS list really should've had something on it by the Foo Fighters, largely on the basis that the Foo Fighters are probably the dominant rock band of the past 15 years.

Which, by the way, is a little odd to me. Nirvana is probably the defining band of my youth. As such, to have a generation of people -- and it's somewhat likely, I'd say -- see Dave Grohl as the Foo Fighters guy before he's the drummer from Nirvana... It's very weird to me.

Especially because the Foo Fighters aren't a particularly good band. They're not necessarily bad, but they're not really anything. The first record was interesting in its aggression and The Colour and the Shape has Grohl's best songwriting, but the rest of the band's catalog is pretty awful. Grohl's need to be a stadium-rock-god-via-funny-video is irritating and makes for some very formulaic work.

With that said, The Colour and the Shape still has tinges of Grohl's debut's fierce punk on the margins. "Enough Space" is a driving record with a Pixies dynamic, "Monkey Wrench" is lightning-fast and has a picture perfect lead/background vocal toward the end of the song. The guitar line in "Wind Up" cuts like a chainsaw.

However, when Grohl decides to get sentimental, problems arise. "My Hero" sounds like something you'd hear before the Super Bowl (no, that's not a compliment) and was wildly misinterpreted as an ode to Kurt Cobain. "Doll" is short and dumb, and "February Stars" is forgettable.


With all that said, The Colour and the Shape is worthwhile for two songs and two songs only. "Hey, Johnny Park!" is stadium rock at its best. More likely an ode to Cobain ("Am I Selling You Out?" being a key lyric), it's a piece of a relationship that laments the past while celebrating today's obsessions. The guitar melody remains one of Grohl's best, his vocal is strained yet contained and Grohl's drumming rivals that of his best Nirvana work.

And what of the best track in the Foos' catalog, "Everlong?" The song's elemental passion leaks through the dropped-d guitar riff, its urgency in its sped-up hi-hat time signature and its construction through its production. Grohl manages to make a song about relationship doubts while in the great moments undoubtedly in the song's chorus:

If everything could ever feel this real forever.
If anything could ever be this good again.
The only thing I'll ever ask of you.
You've got to promise not to stop when I say when.

It's a monumental riff and a gorgeous lyric produced by a band that mostly traffics in cliches and nonsense.


Whatever you think of Grohl, he clearly knows how to game radio. His band's hits number in the many, but his great songs both exist on this album. The bulk of the album isn't all that bad, though. I am glad I own it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

You Are Free

Band: Cat Power
Album: You Are Free
Best song: "He War" and "Maybe Not" are great. "Names" and "Speak for Me" are fantastic, as well.
Worst song: Not. A. One.

Full disclosure: I'd listen to Chan Marshall read the phone book. I find her voice to be among the best female voices in music, if not the best. I've seen her live twice, despite knowing that she's a total train wreck live (Though, she now says that was an alcohol thing and she's sober now).

I don't have a top ten favorite albums list or anything like that. I kind of wish I did, but I don't (I do have five favorite songs). I have a series of albums that I call "go-to records." These are the records that I can listen to, front to back, with only skipping one or two songs (if that). MPII is one. Nevermind. Anything Tortoise record. Overall, there aren't a ton of records I can say that about. You Are Free is one of them.


"Free" is a weird word and an even weirder concept. In an age of George W. Bush: President, the idea is an overwhelmingly strange one. Certainly, Bush's overuse of the word -- he's told us that the terrorists hate our "freedom" about a million times -- has almost made it unimportant and silly. Among the crowd I run with, "freedom" -- especially when done in Bush's put-on Texas drawl -- is entirely punchline.

Intellectually, I understand that I should be thankful for living in a country wherein I can write stuff against the government and be allowed to do it. I don't live in China. I don't live in Castro's Cuba. There is a lot of freedom here and that's to be appreciated, I'd say. The Bill of Rights -- a document I believe in with more passion than basically any other conviction -- operates largely to protect our freedoms.

However, it's not 1791 anymore. Today, "freedom" is simply a buzzword. No one is against freedom, so those terrorists ("Hey, Bush told us they hate our freedom!") must be pretty damned evil. Who doesn't like freedom?

Politics is like this. Democrats appear to have co-opted "hope" (at least site favorite Barack Obama apparently has), after years of the GOP using "freedom" as some sort of campaign slogan.

This was especially true with Bush, post-9/11. He couldn't say "freedom" enough. Everything was "freedom" this or "freedom" that. They even started calling papas fritas "Freedom Fries" to piss off the French, I guess.

But, really, what are we free from and what frees us?


Maybe it's just because our radio station received played two huge records with "free" in the title around the same time (and the same guy reviewed them both), but I always associate You Are Free, thematically, with Free So Free, the J. Mascis and the Fog album that came out in 2002. Free So Free has some serious political overtones. You Are Free doesn't.

So, in this case, "freedom" isn't necessarily the same as Bush likes it. Instead, "freedom" is a concept seemingly having to do with the constructs of a relationship. Or maybe from the constraints of a rock career ("I Don't Blame You.") Or maybe from the vagrant life in which she grew up ("Names").

The album starts out with an apparent ode to Kurt Cobain, "I Don't Blame You." Armed with her own experiences as a stage-frighted performer, the frankness with which she sings "They never owned it/And you never owed it to them anyway" about the fans. Her life of rock and roll stardom, five albums in, is clearly taking a toll.

(Considering her concerts are mostly attractive women guarding her from the audience, I find it hard to see where Marshall is so angry at said fans.)

A similar line of though occurs in the record's second track, "Free." "Don’t be in love with the autograph/Just be in love when you love that song on and on" Marshall sings. The tempo of "Free" makes it sound less resigned and more in-control. Marshall sounds like she actually plans on making changes, or at least, being less passive in the nature of her relationships, be it Chan/boyfriend, Chan/record company or Chan/fans. The keyboards and acoustic guitar rhythmically move the song along while Chan deadpans her commandments to the fans.

"Good Woman" is a similar apology, of sorts, from Marshall to the anonymous boyfriend -- by most accounts, the subject of many of the "You Are Free" songs would be Bill Callahan (the man behind Smog). Sad and confident, Marshall lays it the mutual fault in the first verse, singing "I want to be a good woman/And I want for you to be a good man/And this is why I will be leaving/And this is why I can't see you no more." Essentially a duet with the Dirty Three's Warren Ellis, the violin fills the track as Marshall's slinking electric guitar frames her voice in melody. It's one of the more stark songs on the album, but oddly confident.

Not unlike "Free," "Speak For Me" is another full band number. I imagine it's thinking too much to try and read political discourse into the song, though I can't help but think that Marshall's overly shaded and subtle jabs at xenophobic and violent (read: war) workings are there. The pre-chorus lyrics of "Old world, the whole world is/Going on and on/the backhand to a touch is moving on again/Going on and on" is a philosophical nod to pacificism. While the actual chorus is a self-realization search for knowledge ("What’s next?/I’m out of time/Losing my touch I can't feel/Speak for me; do you see the same signs?/Do you know how to read between the lines?/All in all, it's all or none, all for one." Lyrics or not, the song is Marshall rocking out a fair amount, which is always good. Guest musician Dave Grohl (despite his awful songwriting and mediocre singing, he's still a fantastic drummer) thumps along while Marshall's band churns a very cool song. One of the best on the album.

(I know, it's a stretch.)

"Werewolf" is a cover, though I'm not familiar with the original. Ellis helps out again, only in a clearly lower register. Marshall's double-tracked vocals barely pronounce any of the lyrics, though the song simply sounds wonderful. Again, I'd listen to Marshall reah a grocery list, so I just love her voice as instrument. It bounces off the sparse violin while the acoustic guitar keeps time, basically. "Fool" is a song that touches on alienation in life, the shallowness inherent in show business and the shallowness inherent in being human. Moreso, getting older makes one question priorities, "Wanting to live and laugh all the time/Sitting alone with you tea and your crime." But, what does Marshall want? The chorus is unclear, basing itself in nonspeak as much as speech "Come along Fool/A direct hit of the senses you are disconnected/It’s not that it’s bad…it’s not that it’s death/It’s just that it is on the tip of your tongue, and you're so silent." "Fool" is a striking look into Marshall's view of humans.

Similarly, "Names" is a recount of tragedy. Running through an abuse survivor, a schoolyard tart, a molested girl, a coke dealer and a gigolo, Marshall's stoic deliver is uplifted by a minor-key piano line, echoing as the song continues. Breathy and crisp, Marshall destroys the song.

"Maybe Not" is classic Marshall and does not stray from "Names." Echoing her cover of the Velvets' "I Found a Reason," "Maybe Not" is low and seductive while remaining somber. Lyrically, it's more evocative than anything, with Marshall intoning that "we can all be free" (there's that word again...). The song's optimism ("Remember one thing, the dream you can see/Pray to be, shake this land") rings a populist tone, but belies the song's emotionally somber tone. Like many of Marshall's vocal tracks, it is stunningly beautiful while sounding stunningly downbeat. Stark and pretty, "Maybe Not" is the best sparse Cat Power song.

"He War" is the album's other highlight and thematic center. Marshall's most forceful song (and the accompanying video) announces her aggressiveness (and sexuality) in a way untouched before. Marshall's previous video, "Cross Bones Style," was an almost jokey cutesy thing put upon an asexual song. "He War" is, well, not. The video has a longing, supermodel-looking Marshall gazing off into the horizon, with soaring shots of an ocean skyline. The piano intro is augmented by a piercing distorted guitar, augmented by Grohl's doubled drums. The lightning (for Marshall, at least) pace the song wails as Marshall acts the part of breakup mastermind: "I never meant to be the needle that broke your back/You were here, you were here, and you were here/Don't look back." Taking control of her life (and relationship), she drops the man who'd "kill" for her, telling him "I’m not that hot new chick/And if you want me to run with it." Of course, the irony is that she is, indeed, a hot chick (though not new). Finally playing into her own beauty, Marshall sounds confident and forceful, something she has lacked for so long.


Chan Marhsall's metamorphosis has been an interesting one. The asexual Julie Doiron impression of her early albums turned into dream-woman-for-the-depressed singer/songwriter she was on Moon Pix and The Covers Record. You Are Free picks up that theme and expands it with an actual confidence in identity. "Speak For Me" and "He War" announce Marshall's place, while "Maybe Not" and "Names" show us Marshall's best former style. The record flows perfectly and nary a note is out of place. It's as good as Marshall gets and truly her crossover record.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Band: Tortoise
Album: Tortoise
Best song: "Tin Cans & Twine."
Worst song: Nope.

Let's get one thing out of the way first: Tortoise has been my favorite band since, basically, I first started listening to them at age 15. I've claimed other bands as co-favorites (currently, Mogwai and Pink Floyd), but one has endured. When a friend tried to convince me -- after a particularly great Broken Social Scene show in Baltimore -- that Broken Social Scene is "the best band ever," my first response was "Nope. Tortoise."


I'm currently in a mixtape club run by a friend at her company. I don't really participate fully; Because I don't work for her company, I am not able to enjoy the other mixtapers' mixes (they all reside on a common server at said company). The mixes are themed.

Part of my own purpose of being in the mixtape club is that same purpose with which I used to be in college radio. For whatever reason, I was fighting the fight of getting independent music out there. I wanted to convince everyone that the bands I like are awesome and you should hear them, too.

(After all, a large part of the joy in loving music is being able to share it with people.)

I've burned people mixes with Cat Power on them. I've lent out countless Black Sabbath and King Crimson CDs. I've gifted the Raconteurs album through iTunes. Twice.

I stopped doing that with Tortoise a while back. I'm not really sure why.


In high school and college, I was kind of a Thrill Jockey Records whore. I would review just about anything that came out on the label and I owned (and wore) a Thrill Jockey knit hat. I have one now, but it resides on a glass head in my kitchen.

That changed a bit towards the end of my time at KCOU when Bobby Conn started releasing records on the label. Nothing against Conn; I just never saw his connection to the post-rock awesomeness that the label had nurtured.

In a weird way, Thrill Jockey always meant something greater to me. Unlike Touch & Go records (probably the greatest Chicago label), Thrill Jockey's roster was -- in my mind, but also largely in practice -- all part of one big family. Either musically (bands like Rome and Oval) or incestuously (many members were part of multiple bands), you knew what you were going to get. Like Sub Pop (grunge) in Seattle or Polyvinyl (second-wave emo) in Champaign, Thrill Jockey's post-rock closeness was incredibly comforting to me.

It might have been youthful zeal. It might have been the fact that Tortoise and The Sea and Cake -- two bands I still adore -- are both TJ bands and have never disappointed me with an album.


Make no mistake about it, though. Post-rock is not for everyone and to assume that -- as I did when I was constantly pushing Millions Now Living Will Never Die on people -- everyone I knew would like it was foolish.

The outside characterization of the label mostly backs this up. Because of the laconic nature of the genre -- bass-heavy music and no lyrics will do that to you -- you don't often see people get worked up about the Tortoises, Eleventh Dream Days and Isotope 217s of the world.

In Pitchfork's photo essay recounting TJ's 15th anniversary show weekend, that view is reinforced, basically:

Other bands are best kept as friends. Your heart may not skip a beat at the mention of their names, a missed show here and there won't make you cry, and perhaps you haven't quite gotten around to hearing that latest album, but that's okay, because you can commit to bands like this for life. They're consistent, reliable, and, as with any true friend, they have nothing to prove; the respect and admiration you and these bands share for one another is implicit. They've sorta always been there, too, and you get the feeling they always will be. These are the kind of bands, by and large, that populate the Thrill Jockey roster.

So you won't find many MySpace profiles gushing OMG I <3 SEA+CAKE x 1000000!!!!!11, but you can, it seems, always count on a sea of serene faces at any Sea and Cake show.

I guess I was/am that guy with Tortoise.


As I've explained, my album projects are mostly masturbatory. And with that in mind, Tortoise tracks my own music tastes throughout high school.

When I was a freshman in high school, I was just getting into underground (or "alternative," as it was called then) music. It started with Nirvana, which led me to Black Flag and the Meat Puppets. While I enjoyed all this stuff, I was something of a music omnivore. My favorite bands at the time were the Who and the Clash -- reflecting my punk rock attitude and youthful angst. Also, I was a drummer at the time.

For some reason, I was under the impression that provincialism was the best way to get deep into underground/indie rock. (It probably has to do with the fact that Chicago is a deeply provincial place. Being the capital of the Midwest has that effect on those who live there.) I had a friend, Mike. Mike's brother was in a band who had lived nearby (or maybe in the same building?) as this drum-heavy band called "Tortoise." Mike had explained something about how great they were and that I should check them out.

So I did. I bought the first Tortoise CD from Borders and out of it fell a little CD-sized insert that was a Touch & Go distributed labels mail order catalog. The rest, as they say, is history.


I was talking to my late best friend about 18 months ago about my favorite albums of all time and I'd mentioned the difficulty in choosing a Tortoise record to be on the list. The conversation went as such:

Him: TNT, huh? I'm surprised to see that one at the top
Me: Yeah, that's kind of an intellectual pick more than anything. Because, really, the top five could be all Tortoise records.
Him: Yeah. I mean, obviously you had to have a Tortoise record up there somewhere, but I guess I was just surprised to see you picked TNT. I would have thought you would have picked Tortoise.
Me: And I'm finding that I like all of the Tortoise albums about the same, for different reasons. TNT, I think, is the perfection of the term "post-rock" in that no songs follow the standard rock n' roll form, really.

That's not incorrect, but, every one of the band's albums is ultimately great. TNT is wonderful in its differing forms of the genre. The title track is a sprawling, textured beauty. "I Set My Face to the Hillside" is a harmonized shuffle dance thing. "The Equator" is electronic and moody, while "The Suspension Bridge at Iguazú Falls" features a gorgeous guitar march.

Similarly, It's All Around You features one of my favorite songs of all-time, the album's title track. Brimming with complex structures and a strong melody, "It's All Around You" has the best drum lines of any song. Ever. Millions has the soundtrack vibe of "Glass Museum" and the syncopation of "The Taut and the Tame." Standards is progressive and evocative, from the cacophony of "Seneca" to the rotating drums and guitar lines of "Monica."

But, the album that got me into the band remains their debut.

Indeed, I can't really, in a coherent way, explain why Tortoise is so great. Like Mogwai -- another mostly instrumental band -- it's nearly impossible to discern irony and meaning from the band's titles and songs. Millions Now Living Will Never Die is named after a Jehovah's Witness phrase from the early 20th century.

And it could easily be said that Tortoise (and post-rock, in general) can be seen almost entirely as background music. I don't dispute this; a lot of post-rock is mellow and slow. But, it's also complex, thematic and, ultimately, emotional.

Takin as much from Can and Neu! as it does from Coltrane and Miles Davis, Tortoise is what jazz sounds like through a modern rock musician's filter. Named after the famous guitarist, "Ry Cooder" is a seven-minute jazz romp built on a vibraphone and bass lead line. "Cornpone Bunch" is quick and shuffling with an additional percussion line hitting the downbeats. "Spiderwebbed," complex and layered, is repetitive in a familiar way, again with the bass as the centerpiece. "Night Air" is the band's only album song with vocals -- an early cover of Freakwater's "Lonesome Sound" appears on one of the band's early singles -- and dense and wet. With an accordiorgan line providing the backbone, the low-in-the-mix vocal track is growly and dark.

Despite no lyrics, "Tin Cans & Twine" is, to me, the picture of emotion. It's melancholy and moody with an ever-present lament of a bassline. The guitar comes in sparingly, only to accentuate the depth of the song, while a Moog provides a backdrop.

Only when the drums, guitar and bass come together does the song reveal its optimism. In their synchronicity do the parts reflect a hope overcoming the song's beginning. It's the daybreak after the storm, the lessons learned from defeat. It is, indeed, my favorite song by the band and one of my favorites by any band.


As mentioned, I cannot write about albums I truly love without sounding like a goddamned idiot and, for that, I apologize. Please, just find someone with a Tortoise album and borrow it. Or go and buy one from the Thrill Jockey store. Or on iTunes. It's not rock and roll and it's not jazz. It's not post-rock in the definition so often cited by idiots (rock music without vocals), but rather moving past rock.

Friday, October 24, 2008

White Sky

Band: Archer Prewitt
Album: White Sky
Best song: "Motorcycles" and "Walking on the Farm" are brilliant. "Shake" is great.
Worst song: "Raise on High" is good, but not as great as the rest of the album.

When I was a freshman in college, I did this weird project -- for no one but myself, though I think I had designs of posting it on the Web -- wherein I mapped every single post-rock musician's relationship to one another. It started because I'd noticed that Jim O'Rourke was starting to work with Sonic Youth and that The Sea and Cake -- one of my favorite bands at the time -- was, indeed, a side project and not the key band. I'd also recently discovered Slint, a band that opened up a whole new world to me.

(For what it's worth, it looked like a systems map-type thing only with people's names in the boxes and bands written on the connection lines.)

I spent days on this thing and it never seemed to end. It eventually encompassed producers and branched outside the (mostly meaningless) genre. Steve Albini ended up being a chart all his own, as does David Pajo. The project was eventually abandoned after it took up four sheets of paper and my writing was becoming increasingly small in font size.

The project served to reinforce two things to me:

  1. The idea of a "post-rock" as I knew it is meaningless. To classify The Sea and Cake and Tortoise in the same genre is idiotic, considering the former mostly resembles a free jazz band the the latter mostly resembles a bossa nova group. Sound-wise, there is nothing in common. Genre is what it is -- helpful, but not canon -- and "post-rock" should have nothing to do with it.

  2. What is know as the mid-1990s Chicago scene is more incestuous than a fundamentalist Mormon compound. Just looking at the Tortoise/TSAC thing, it's ridiculous. Sam Prekop's solo record featured members of Tortoise, Archer Prewitt's solo record had some of his former bandmates from the Coctails, who in turn used to work with Poi Dog Pondering, while John McEntire produced a Stereolab record and Doug McCombs' solo record featured members of other bands and so on and so on. Everyone works with everyone. That's Chicago for you, I guess.

Despite the time commitment and utter futility , I am incredibly glad I did this map. Like my bizarre scouring of the Touch & Go distribution catalog as a high schooler, the post-rock map opened up worlds of music to me that I might not have heard otherwise. Growing my base of music fandom was very important to me in 1999-2000 and I'm incredibly glad I did it, even if don't listen to that Shrimp Boat box set as I should.


Archer Prewitt's almost-fame is derived from his participation in two of the more unique bands of recent indie rock memory. The Coctails used just about every instrument under the sun -- sax, keyboards, glockenspiels and the usual rock stuff -- to create upbeat, often silly music. Standing somewhere between Esquivel and Yo La Tengo, the band created a solid niche for itself in its original native Kansas City and eventually the band's adopted home of Chicago. Like Prewitt's look -- he appears to look like someone in Mad Men or an extra in a 1940s detective film -- Prewitt's work in the band as sometime vocalist ("If You Could") and multi-instrumentalist is epic and wonderful.

(After looking tha band up our good friend Wikipedia, it turns out the jazz-rock sound they did was called "loungecore." The band prefered to be called "garage jazz." See what I mean about genre labels?)

The Sea and Cake, as mentioned before, is a favorite band of mine despite the band's, uh, distinct sound. Basically, TSAC does not branch out much and the AC/DC argument ("AC/DC has been playing the same riff for 30 years over and over.") does apply. Nevertheless, Prewitt's guitar sound in TSAC is a unique one in that it takes as much from indie rock of the time as it does from bossa nova kings Luiz Bonfá and João Gilberto.

And with all that, Prewitt has released three solo albums, a solo EP and a solo live album (albeit the live one was released through eMusic). Unlike TSAC bandmate Sam Prekop, Prewitt's solo work sounds nothing like any of his other work. While Prekop's record sounds like a stripped down TSAC record, Prewitt's solo work spans hard rock to singer/songwriter stuff to chamber pop in the manner of Belle & Sebastian or the Decemberists.

That's the space White Sky occupies. Like a great Fleetwood Mac record, White Sky shifts between the instrumental bombast of the title track to the sweetness of the acoustic "Last Summer Days." The riffing in "Motorcycles" is immediately preceded by eight epic minutes of "Walking on the Farm," a song as excellent as it is long.

Indeed, Prewitt's voice reflects his image in that his voice is not soft and sweet (a la Prekop), but not forceful and crooning (like Mark Lanegan). He hits every note, but does it with a seeming sincerity lost in a lot of independent music and certainly in his earlier work with the Coctails. Lyrically, "Tuning into one more song/who's on the radio?" is not Dylan, but Prewitt's easy description of everyday in "Motorcycles" is near-perfect.

Similarly, "Shake" is a tender love song revolving around a jangly guitar. "Final Season," full of strings, is a love song epic. Preaching his love, Prewitt intones "we'll never know, when we'll find a reason" as the orchestra envelopes him. And closing the album, "I'll be Waiting" tells the lover's story in simple terms amid another beautiful acoustic line.


Archer Prewitt's role in music is varied. Like many that have come out of the 1990s Chicago scene, he is an always-working multi-instrumentalist. His solo albums, though, are always a treat. White Sky, his second, is a revelation. It's lush and gorgeous, yet intimate. It can be subdued and bombastic. Prewitt's range is impeccable and White Sky is a masterpiece.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cease to Begin

Band: Band of Horses
Album: Cease to Begin
Best song: "No One's Gonna Love You" is gorgeous.
Worst song: "The General Specific" is just a mediocre song.

There are no real ways around it, but not every band can be Battles. Rock and roll is a largely derivative form and the ability to create quality music is one that we value highly. Sadly, when one does that inexplicably while nearly entirely painting within the proverbial numbers, a backlash occurs.

Band of Horses has been the subject of a tidy little dustup within critical circles, largely because the band does play straight up rock and roll. Taking something from the Shins and Hold Steady, the Sub Pop rockers rely on stringy guitars, easy keyboards and a distinct nasal drone for some pretty typical rock and roll.

Indeed, Band of Horses are similar to Sub Pop labelmates the Shins in that none of their sound is new, dramatic or -- well, I'll say it -- interesting. It's repetition of form; There's little country influence. Where the band lacks in poetic lyrics -- the Shins ahve that in spades -- the band makes up in pure heart.

Cease to Begin is decidedly earnest in both lyric and music. The album's highlights are either hard-drivers or sweet appegiated strained love songs. It's simple in its arrangements --keyboards, a simple vocal line, guitars and drums -- with nary a machine playing notes.

Indeed, the album begins with a sweet-sounding driver on fear and sleep, "Is There a Ghost" that ends with a strong guitar line moving into a more upbeat "Ode to LRC." "Marry Song" falls later in the album, but slowly mirrors the sweetness of the album, with a slight twang to Ben Bridwell's vocals falling over the organ riff. Of course, followed is the opening cacophony (cacophony is relative, of course, this is Band of Horses) of the opposing lyric of "Cigarettes, Wedding Bands." As Bridwell recounts the dissipation of a relationship, his voice cracks slightly.

"Detlef Schrempf" -- named after the famous German basketball player -- is the type of music Zack Braff shits himself for (and I mean that as a compliment). The song is, no doubt, gorgeous, with its layered guitars, easily mic'd drums and Bridwell's pleasant voice. "Islands on the Coast" takes from Superchunk and Beachwood Sparks equally, with the band emphasizing a tempo slowdown between verses.

The album's highlight, of course, is the second-best (behind Iron & Wine's brilliant "Boy With a Coin") song of 2007 is "No One's Gonna Love You." The song's slow tempo backs up it somber tone, as Bridwell sings a tempered, yet sad breakup song:

When things start splitting at the seams and now
The whole thing's tumbling down
Things start splitting at the seams and now
If things start splitting at the seams and now,
It's tumbling down

Like the best of Elliott Smith and Ben Gibbard, the everyday lyricism in Bridwell's lyrics are delivered only as he can: With a sharp falsetto and a tender low range. The guitars mirror his voice with reverbed picked chords. A steady off-military 4/4 beat makes the song move, but, really, the vocal is the star of the song:


Is Band of Horses the best band that ever was? Of course not. Like Coldplay's place on the RS500 list or my own fandom of the Shins, Band of Horses does a very good job at being a rock band. They don't bend any rules, they don't break any new ground. But, they're good. Real good.

Cease to Begin is good. Real good.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Band: Wilco
Album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Best song: "War on War," "Kamera" and "Heavy Metal Drummer" are great Wilco songs. However, the opener, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is where the band was going and reflected a new musical direction.
Worst song: "I'm the Man Who Loves You" is OK, but not to the level of the rest of the album.

Despite Wilco's recent decent into suck (as well as Jeff Tweedy's erraticism in regards to other band members), the band's two best albums hold up against basically anything else recorded. Summerteeth is a record on par with Pet Sounds for American optimism. Like another 1999 release (seriously, 1999 may be the best year for albums in my lifetime), Summerteeth was a striking piece of post-genre work produced with the sheen of a pop record.

No doubt, Summerteeth is great. But, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is similarly great. Put together during the band's rockiest period -- see the Sam Jones' documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart for the full story -- the uncertainty of 2002's YHF reflected the times in America. Indeed, during the record, Tweedy's anxiety got the best of him, the band's label basically dropped them and Tweedy essentially kicked Jay Bennet out of the band. Again, see the movie.

Bringing in super genius and all-around Chicago scenemaster Jim O'Rourke brought the band's production to a different place. Gone were the symphonic bells of "Can't Stand It," replaced by the smaller, softer bells of "Kamera," an acoustic-guitar-driven number on the frustration of perception. Gone are the keyboards of "I'm Always in Love" -- a brilliant song, by the way -- and replaced by the electronic drum into to "Heavy Metal Drummer." The dissonance and disjointed "I Am Trying to Break Your Heat" replaces the irony of "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (Again)," how ever ironic it may be.

Indeed, O'Rourke's experience with noise is well-placed within the record. Make no mistake, YHF is full of melodic, non-distorted parts. But what sets it apart from previous Wilco records is the ability to translate that to O'Rourke's magic. "Ashes of American Flags" clearly had lyrical resonance in early 2002, but the song's overarching disjointed sound reflects the spirit of the times. "Radio Cure" is strange and distorted with bits of tape and Tweedy's voice being the only constants in the song.

Tweedy's songwriting and layering is the star of the album. "Pot Kettle Black" is Page-esque in its several acoustic and electric guitar parts. "Heavy Metal Drummer" has the oooooos and aaaaaas of a 70s ballad, whipped under a midtempo stomp. "I'm the Man Who Loves You" has the crazed Ornette Coleman-esque guitar solo in the intro and outro over a pop lyric. "War on War" is a stomper of a song, with gorgeous chimes and percussion.


I would say that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a study of a band in transition, save for the fact that Wilco is seemingly always in a transition mode. Nevertheless, the most chaotic period in the band seemed to come around the recording and mastering of YHF and the results are, not surprisingly, wonderful. Along with Summerteeth, YHF established Wilco as a creative force.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Meat Puppets II

Band: Meat Puppets
Album: Meat Puppets II
Best song: "Oh, Me" is desperation.
Worst song: Overall, there are no bad songs on this album.

Without question, there are many albums that shape our view of rock and roll. I know my own list is huge and I plan on writing more about those albums in the coming weeks.

Meat Puppets II is one of the defining albums of my music listening past because it was the first album I had that showed the promise of independent rock. It represented a time and a genre that could expand into something other than what we'd heard on the radio.

Indeed, my own experience with MPII exists in a time before the Internet. It exists in a time before punk rock was monetized and stylized by the Hot Topics of the world. It exists in a time when "scenes" meant something and when the alternative rock was actually something.

Like many, I discovered the Meat Puppets via Nirvana. When Kurt Cobain brought Curt and Kris Kirkwood up on stage for the band's Unplugged appearance, many of us took notice. Cobain's slight rearranging of three of MPII's best songs -- "Plateau," "Lake of Fire" and "Oh, Me" -- made many of us stand up and look at the Meat Puppets' work.

(That's not to say that everything Cobain loved was gold. He was an avid Bikini Kill fan and -- I'm sorry, Ellen -- I find Bikini Kill to sound wildly dated. He wore Flipper shirts at MTV shows and Flipper kind of sucks.)

Taking the band's whole oeuvre, the Meat Puppets are not a great band. The first record is a nice little hardcore project and some of the later career stuff -- including No Joke, which had a minor radio hit in "Backwater" -- is mostly bland. But MPII is glorious.

Dancing around upbeat, contemplative love songs like "Climb" (with its wonderful non sequitir lyrics) and the dour "Plateau," MPII mixes the band's Western country roots with its modern hardcore, topping it off with hooks and melodies unfit for a hardcore band.

Indeed, the lead riff in "New Gods," a rapid-fire road trip song, is hypnotic and wonderful. The album opener, "Split Myself in Two" is similarly hard and fast, with an even stronger backbeat.


MPII is also interesting in that the Meat Puppets showed people that, well, skill isn't always point number one in great music. I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but it makes for a great record. The Kirkwoods' vocals are strained and often off while the guitar lines are slow and easy to emulate. In an age of Eddie Van Halen -- MPII came out in 1983 at the height of Van Halen's reign -- the Kirkwoods showed that rock and roll guitar needn't be all fingertapping.

(It should be said that there is evidence of guitar skill on the record, namely, the classical guitar instrumental "I'm a Mindless Idiot.")

It's near-impossible to make an album that's truly interesting, but MPII is just that. The lyrics drop Americana like crazy -- the open road and reference to political strife of "Lost," the evangelical Puritan past of "Lake of Fire," the diner love of "New Gods," the folktales of "Plateau," etc. -- and remain an decidedly American album. Unlike the mock country that is much of California's music in the 1970s (hello, Eagles!), the Meat Puppets had some roots and combined them with the styles of the time.

It should be said that the album is not an optimistic one. It's topped with disappointment. The search for the "Plateau" is never resolved, "The Whistling Song" ends with defeat and "Oh, Me" is the most optimistic song on the album:

If I had to lose a mile
If I had to touch feelings
I would lose my soul
The way I do

Detached and contemplative, the lyrics are gorgeous in their search for a meaning. Screeched as they are, the passion runs through the song's easy three-chord melody. As pained as Cobain's interpretation was, the Kirkwoods' is better.


I don't tend to like twang, but MPII is one of the albums that makes me reconsider my position. Like the album's lyrics, it's the type of record to put on while driving on the open road. Bruce Springsteen peddles this music to a larger audience, but MPII does it with more passion and strength.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Screaming for Vengeance

Band: Judas Priest
Album: Screaming for Vengeance
Best song: "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" was the hit, but "Bloodstone" and "Devil's Child" are the album's real highlights.
Worst song: "Fever" isn't great.

I was explaining to a friend recently of my love for Screaming for Vengeance specifically and a more general interest in Judas Priest by explaining that monster riffing and seriously vocal wailing is always a good combination.

Screaming for Vengeance has lots of monster riffing and serious wailing. Like Iron Maiden, Priest's music is based around a fair amount of Keith Richards/Tony Iommi-style heavy riffs and a ton of high(ish) pitched vocalizing by Rob Halford.

Indeed, Halford's voice is rangey, hitting the growly pieces of "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" and the Bruce Dickinson-esque screams on the title track. Full of leather, machine gun drums and fingertapping solos, "Devil's Child" hits Halford's top range.

Oddly, music like Screaming for Vengeance never really coexists with lyrics of any import. This album isn't really different. A quick scan of the record's song titles back this up, as the songs fill the songs. "Bloodstone" is some kind of social message song:

How much longer will it take
For the world to see.
We should learn to live
And simply let it be.

I can't say for sure, but I have to think the song's message has something to do with Rob Halford 1980s residence in the closet. The metal community isn't exactly the most accepting.


Genre-wise, hard rock from the 1980s seems to get throw into two categories: Hair band music and "serious" metal. However, there are bands that straddle those categories and Priest is at or near the top of those bands. Despite their penchant for leather -- and mostly nonsense lyrics -- the Priest guys are wildly talented.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

One Beat

Band: Sleater-Kinney
Album: One Beat
Best song: "Combat Rock" is brilliant. "Far Away" is relentless.
Worst song: "Pristina" is just OK.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, a lot of musicians did a lot of fund raising. I seem to remember Bruce Springsteen doing a lot of benefit shows. Some bands toured and gave money.

A few bands, though, took to the post-Sept. 11 world in a different way. J. Mascis released Free So Free, touching on politics in way unforeseen in his career to that point. Cat Power -- albeit nearly a year and a half later -- released You Are Free, her most grown up record to date.

Sleater-Kinney, already an overly political band by way of feminism, took to the studio. And with it, the band put out its best-reviewed album (a 9.1 at Pitchfork!). Examining the full spectrum of the political reality, One Beat takes on George W. Bush, the PATRIOT Act and the feaar that econcompassed the nation in early 2002.


One Beat has requisite S-K landmarks. Carrie Brownstein's jaunty chanting on "Oh!" echoes the danceable fun of The Hot Rock's "You're No Rock and Roll Fun." "Sympathy" is quick and jerky, punking around. "Step Aside" is classic feminism rock. And of course, Corin Tucker's operatic wail, sounding something like a female Bruce Dickinson or Rob Halford.

But what makes One Beat stand out is the complexity the band embraces, both musically and lyrically. Moving away from straight up punk music, the band embraces a new math rock effort while also channeling their inner rock goddesses. Tucker's and Brownstein's guitars dance around like a Don Caballero number while turning up the collective volume.

The results are nothing short of epic. "Light Raily Coyote" is the cowboy song on the record, with Tucker describing the Oregon landscape over a constant crescendo of guitars and Janet Weiss' cymbals. "O2" is an S-K song in Superchunk clothing, with an emoting vocal, a solo-y riff and upbeat rhytymn.

The lyrical complexity isn't a first for the band, but the confluence of events make for the band's most compelling words. Tucker spent most of 2001 with her newborn and so was written the emotionally wrought "Far Away." Behind a railing guitar, the song's lyrics are moving and evocative ("7:30 a.m., nurse the baby on the couch/then the phone rings/'Turn on the TV'") and eventually turn on our leadership ("And the president hides
while working men rush in/to give their lives"). Unlike many punk bands, Tucker's lyric is complex enough to be adult and yet easy uenough to understand. "Funeral" certainly isn't directly about Sept. 11, but evokes the death and sadness felt on the day.

The album's brilliant centerpiece is "Combat Rock." The song's darting guitar line borrows from Modest Mouse while Weiss' drum line takes from a military procession. The song's lyrics take on a preduitive quality as Tucker and Brownstein rail against the cultural lemming-ness of the U.S. in the post-Sept. 11 world. The first chorus intones the fearmongering from the mainstream press and politicisans:

Hey look it's time to pledge allegiance
Oh God, I love my dirty Uncle Sam
Our country's marching to the beat now
And we must learn to step in time

Calling skepticism "treason" and directly attacking Bush's instructions to shop ("Show you love your country go out and spend some cash/Red white blue hot pants doing it for Uncle Sam") are just the tips of the band's intelligent lyrical iceberg about the 2002 landscape. Taking on war ("Flex our muscles show them we’re stronger than the rest") and the neocon network ("The good old boys are back on top again"), the band eventually -- with the song's last line -- reasons that we've been here before ("And if we let them lead us blindly/The past becomes the future once again").


Sleater-Kinney was an amazing band and one to enjoy. They broke the gender barrier in indie rock, growing from a riot grrl stalwart to indie rock's political conscience took a bit, but was well worth it. One Beat is the culmination of that transformation.

Monday, October 6, 2008


The hope is to get more of these reviews up online, but it's proving to be pretty difficult.

Band: Justin Timberlake
Album: FutureSex/LoveSounds
Best song: "My Love" is undoubtedly the highlight of the album, though "SexyBack" isn't bad.
Worst song: "Damn Girl" is damn bad.

A lot of great success stories come from those who are not necessarily the smartest or most innovative folks in the world, but simply knew enough to latch onto the real innovators/geniuses and hope to ride the wave. That's not to say that these people aren't talented to worthwhile, but their talent is hugely augmented by being around those who can get the most out of them.

Eminmen always reminds me of this skill, as his best work was always done with Dr. Dre showing him around and the the second he eschewed Dre for his own production work, the records suffered.

Justin Timberlake is, no doubt, this type of person. His immense talent is mostly in "packaging" things -- his voice, his bone structure, his dance skills -- and not in the creative places like his songwriting (bleah) or production skills (bleah). So, instead, he chooses to work with those more skilled than he and puts out good records.

Even better, Timberlake doesn't seem to feel the need to stick his nose in everything or release an album every five minutes. He appears in a movie here and there, but he doesn't guest on every record under the sun. It's kind of nice to know that Justin Timberlake appears to enjoy being Justin Timberlake.

(Side note: I saw The Love Guru last week and it was a steaming pile of garbage. Timberlake was passably funny in it, but, overall, the movie sucked so very hard.)


As with any artist going out on his/her own, Timberlake's work shows a progression that any artist would be proud to enjoy. His work with *NSync is undoubtedly mindless pop. Justified showed plenty of that angle, producing "Rock Your Body" and "Like I Love You," but also the Timbaland-produced classic breakup song "Cry Me a River."

FutureSex/LoveSounds is an extension of this growth. Taking from hip hop's grandiosity, Timberlake spends most of the album chanting and singing over chopped beats and Southern-style production. Guests include Three 6 Mafia and T.I., as Timberlake works more of a hip hop angle.

Surprisingly, the hip hop situation works much better than you would think, largely because Timberlake is mostly a bit player in the songs. "My Love" is, without question, the highlight of the record and not because Timberlake brings a great performance (he does), but because Timbaland's production is the star of the song. "Chop Me Up" features Three 6 Mafia and is less enthusiastically produced than "My Love," but nevertheless is a sum of its parts, as opposed to being carried by Timberlake.

"Damn Girl" isn't great and's rap in the middle feels forced. "Losing My Way" is a similarly forced attempt at gospel hip hop or introspection or something.


FutureSex/LoveSounds is hardly the world's best record. It's mostly a dance record, as "SexyBack" proves. "My Love" is a wonderful ballad with a pretty idiotic message ("love is good," essentially). "LoveStoned" has remnants of Timberlake's boy band past. "Sexy Ladies" is mostly nonsense, but is similarly hummable and fun.

Overall, it's a fine effort and one that builds on Timberlake's perfectly charming first record.