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.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Ballad of the Broken Seas

Band: Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
Album: The Ballad of the Broken Seas
Best song: The cover of “Ramblin' Man” is great. I love “Black Mountain.” I know I shouldn't like "Honey Child What Can I Do?” but I do.
Worst song: "It's Hard to Kill a Bad Thing" is just OK.

I once wrote that people that think Belle & Sebastian is great pop music are “assholes.” Despite being a minor fan – I have four of the band's seven studio albums – I tend to think the band's fans are overbearing and stake too much on B+S' track record as fantastic musicians. They're nice, but a little bit of twee goes a very, very long way.

Nevertheless, I am an abject sucker for a ladyvoice, so I decided to grab the collaboration between former B+S cellist/vocalist Isobel Campell and former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, The Ballad of the Broken Seas. Lanegan's voice has gone through something of a metamorphosis since the band's sole hit, 1992's “Nearly Lost You.” Lanegan's strength has moved to the low end and his mid range vibrato is nearly gone. Taking from Tom Waits and Nick Cave, Lanegan's voice is strong and gritty.

Indeed, Lanegan and Campbell each provide a strong, distinct voice to the record. Campbell's twee stylings remain within the genre's boundaries, but, placed in a more folk enviroment, the juxtaposition is much more pleasant. While a band like Flyleaf relies on a different juxtaposition of metal and twee vocals, the twee/folk situation is much more relaxing and, quite frankly, pretty.

As a record, The Ballad of the Broken Seas isn't terribly well-constructed, as the songs tend to run together. The Lanegan-focused songs are memorable if only because Lanegan's voice is stronger (though not better). The cover of “Ramblin' Man” features Campbell's wonderful whisper sweet vocal singing harmonies and Campbell's contributions are truly the highlight of the song and, essentially, the record.

Lushly arranged, the record has the feel of a classic pop record. Campbell's signature cello exist, but in smaller ways and in easy to digest pieces. The album works well as background music, largely because the record doesn't fall into the crazy highs and lows of much music. Like a great jazz record, The Ballad of the Broken Seas is a wonderfully pleasant, enjoyable record.