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.