Thursday, July 30, 2009

Little Earthquakes


Band: Tori Amos
Album: Little Earthquakes
Best song: "Winter" is probably Amos' best song. "Crucify" is a good song, though the single edit is better.
Worst song: "Happy Phantom" isn't great.

A few months ago, a friend of mine accused me of being pretentious because I made a comment about the Decemberists (I believe it was "Decemberists fans are always annoying"). Really, I don't think the Decemberists are a particularly good or bad band, I have a perception of fans of a literate band that does, like, pirate music and quotes classic literature.

This, of course, is kind of a stupid thing to do. People don't just listen to one band. I, for example, am a fan of a wide span of music. I have thousands of albums and I listen to so many records. My favorite bands are, like, Pink Floyd, Mogwai, Tortoise, Elliott Smith, etc. I have a bunch of band shirts, but I really only wear one band shirt a lot.

This one:


Am I the world's biggest Iron Maiden fan? I am not. I've seen the band live once. I own three Maiden albums.

But, I love that shirt. I love the idea that I can broadcast that I listen to Iron Maiden and there isn't much in the way of confusion. It's not obscure. There's no question what Maiden is about.

---

Look, we all stereotype and in the grand scheme of things, stereotyping people by their music taste is mostly harmless. I could list a million bands that have a stereotype surrounding their fans. Phish/Grateful Dead and burnout heshers. Kelly Clarkson and fat chicks. Korn and idiot meatheads from Central California. Toby Keith and rednecks. The Indigo Girls and, uh, chicaks who wear birkenstocks, play softball and have short, cropped hair.

Tori Amos fans get one of the stronger, most well-developed sterotypes. Female fans of Ms. Amos tend to be a little nutty, dabbling in the magic(k), wicca and goth scenes. They describe themselves as very "sensual" or "sexual" people (here's a tip: If you have to define what type of person you are to others, you've got problems.). They like candles and hair dye. They might go for some cakey makeup and that really deep red lipstick thing. They believe in faeries and love that goddamned faery imagery, maybe she has a faery tatt. Or maybe a sun/moon tatt. They wear fishnets on their arms, but don't go full-goth. They often have a weird piercing or two. There's a lot of feminism in this group, but the sort of fucked-up feminism that is almost separatist. Not the kind I practice.

I don't mean to be mean in making fun of these girls -- they clearly have some fucked up stuff going on that makes them define themselves in such a way (short theory: People who dress so abrasively do so because they are putting up a wall. They're damaged. They don't want to let people in.). Whatever trauma or physiological situation made them this way is easy to mock, but it's sad nonetheless.

(I've never met a dude who called himself a "big" Tori Amos fan, though I imagine they exist. I had a male friend go to an Amos show in HS -- it was on a date with a girl who was a big fan -- and my friend said he saw a dude there wearing a cape.)

Amos so caters to these people. Her music is personal and reflective, slightly combative and very emotional. In the same way I feel Jens Lekman is speaking to me on "And I Remember Every Kiss," Amos fans feel she's speaking to her on "Silent All These Years." Stories of damage and redemption pepper her work and her often ambiguous lyrics make for near infinite fan intrepretations. Nowhere are these qualities more evident than on Little Earthquakes, Amos' solo debut.

Amos' songwriting is striking in its imagery. God knows what "Mother" is about (sample lyric: "And with your advice/Poison me against the moon"), but it can be intrepreted in many ways. "Crucify" is a little anti-religion polemic, contraining the lyric "Got enough guilt to start my own religion."

Lyrically, "China" is one of Amos' most traditionally pop songs. Structurally, the song is a ballad of lost love, with Amos lamenting her lovers' "wall" of emotions. Having been raped is the subject of "Me and a Gun," one of Amos' most-cited songs. Stark and minimalist, it is a seldom-played song in the Amos setlist.

Piano is Amos' instrument of choice -- and a symbol of her career as she named her career restrospective boxed set after the instrument -- though she branches often into other keyboards (harpsichord drives "Tear in Your Hand"). Overally, though, Amos' voice is her greatest asset. "Crucify" lives and dies with Amos darting around the scale for the "looking for a savior" line. Amos' pipes have a lilting quality on "Silent All These Years."

It's actually a wonderful record and one that I'm sort of half-ashamed I own. It's good, but, man, I don't want to be identified with those creepy Amos fans.

Broom


Band: Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Album: Broom
Best song: "Oregon Girl" has the best hook. "Yr Broom" is great.
Worst song: "Anne Elephant" isn't great. Overall, the whole record is just nice. Nothing great. Just listenable.

How much does a band name influence its exposure? Do crappy bands get more blog-time than they should because of a good name?

I always wonder this stuff because of the bands I enjoy that have changed recent names. Jason Molina's four differently named, though similar-sounding projects (Jason Molina/Pyramid Electric Co., The Magnolia Electric Co., and Songs:Ohia) may have put a dent into his exposure. Bill Callahan now releasing records under his name -- as opposed to his 11 recorded as Smog -- makes it harder to follow, on some level.

So, that's confusing.

I guess easy band names make life easier for fans. It's easy to be a fan of, say, Tortoise. It's not a tough name to remember. It's not a tough name to follow. Being a fan of, say, the Rolling Stones, isn't hard. Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jethro Tull are sometimes confusing if only because some lesser fans think them to be one dude instead of a collection of dudes. Metallica is a brilliant name for a metal band, as is Iron Maiden.

Whatever. I've written too much on this topic. The reason I was thinking about it is because indie rock bands often give themselves silly(ish) names and I always wonder if said names are a hurdle. Sure, a band like the I Love You, But I'm Not in Love With Yous (a college band while I was at University of Missouri) is good for a chuckle, but it's a pain to write and say. I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness is a great fucking band, but they're not really hard enough for their name. Margot & the Nuclear So and So's is a long-ass band name and a band that probably would've had more cache, if they actually had an easier name.

Anyway, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin is a brilliant concept. In the same way that Margot & the Nuclear So and So's does what they do well, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin is pretty good at what they do. As an indie pop band, SSLYBY hits all the relevant points. "Pangea" has the upbeat nature and the peppy vocals of the best indie pop has to offer. "Yr Broom" features the often-clapped hands of recent vintage indie rock as well as an acoustic guitar to die for. Vocally, the band combines harmonies of the Beach Boys with the scaled down intimacy of the singer/songwriter mold. "Travel Song" has a more snide vocal track, as the band laments a former flame. "Oregon Girl" is peppy, with a That Dog-guitar line that echoes the early 1990s, only done by four weenie dudes from Springfield, Missouri.

For the most part, the record does not sound as though it was recorded in someone's bedroom -- though it indeed was. "House Fire" is layered with keyboards and a picking guitar piece, while "Travel Song" only has tinges of Smog-production levels. "Gwyneth" is the lowest of the fidelity, with thinny drums backing up a crisp piano. The vocals buoy the song, indeed.

In a way, SSLYBY is a copy of a copy. In taking its cues from the Replacements and R.E.M., the band is rehashing a sound (jangle, jangle, everyone) that was a facsimile of something else in the first place. It's perfectly pleasant, but nothing we haven't heard from the Shins.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kicking A Couple Around


Band: Smog
Album: Kicking A Couple Around (EP)
Best song: Basically, the entire record is good. "Your New Friend" has a special place in my heart.
Worst song: Nah. It's only four songs.

I don't know if I've recounted the story of my favorite introduction to independent music in this space. Basically, in junior high -- I started HS in the fall of 1995 -- I had heard of and vaguely knew of independent music. A friend from school had a brother involved in a few indie rock bands and in the scene. My friend's brother lived in a building (or near or something) with some dudes. They were in a band called 'Tortoise' and for a drummer, apparently, they were not to be missed (I was a dummer at the time).

Cut to the summer before my freshman year. Thanks to Nirvana, my introduction to punk rock was based in the Flipper, Sonic Youth and the like. I knew SST because I had some friends in a band that covered Black Flag and Meat Puppets. Punk was my first introduction to that stuff, but because of my friend with the brother in the local scene, I heard that the local college's radio station was the way to learn about music. So, I tried to listen to WNUR, Northwestern University's station. A guy named Spencer worked a weeknight rock shift that I came to love.

One evening's actions started my love of underground music and remains the key thing that made me who I am today. I still have the tape. It was the spring of 1996. I called in, without knowing a single track name -- remember, this was before Wikipedia or band Web sites -- to request somethign from Tortoise. I knew their most recent album title -- Millions Now Living Will Never Die -- but didn't know any song titles. Spencer asked me what song I wanted. Nervously, I said I wanted the second track on the first side. He said he'd play something soon -- not wanting, I'm sure, to explain to me that the first side of Millions was one long song, "Djed."

So, I popped in a tape. The tracklist remains "Gamera" (a pretty rare 12-minute non-album single Tortoise song), Cheap Trick's "Top of the World," June of 44's "June Miller," the brilliant Fran├žoise Hardy's "Comment te dire adieu?" (the song that made me fall in love with any girl that speaks the language) and a long(ish) acoustic song recorded for the Peel Sessions called "Your New Friend" by a band called Smog.

Each of those songs will remain in my heart, probably, until I die. I spent a year and a half trying to track down the Gamera EP, eventually spending $75 on eBay for it in college. I saw June of 44 twice in one week. I bought every Smog record and saw Cheap Trick five times. I own two Hardy records despite not knowing a single word of French that doesn't appear on a menu.

They set a stage of meandering toward lo-fi meaning, weird emotion and quiet/loud dynamics. In a lot of ways, the bulk of my adult personality's foundation is built on those songs. I've tried to recreate the feeling I had listening to that tape a million times. I recently came close, but that thing's gone now.

(I later fell in kinda-love with two guys at my HS radio station and got into Yo La Tengo and Pavement via them.)

---

Bill Callahan -- the man who is Smog -- knows how to write human-hating relationship songs. "Mistanthropy" is a word associated with Callahan as much as "lo-fi" and "folk."

"I Break Horses," according to our good friend Wikipedia, is a story of a one-night stand told in the nice metaphor of a horse trainer -- only Bill Callahan's famed, bizarre misanthropy can work that trick well. "The Orange Glow of a Stranger's Living Room" is a nice little track to end the EP, with some of Callahan's most expressive guitar work.

"Back in School" is a more rhythmic story of exes seeing one another for the first time in a bit. The main character wants to tell his ex of his plans, but can't come out with it. The awkward conversation, the party. It's all futile. And nothin will ever be less than awkard. It's cathartic and wonderful.

---

The album's highlight, "Your New Friend" is a beautiful song, no doubt. At nearly seven minutes, it's a recounting of the depths of a boyfriend getting cheated on, while still living with the person. Holding to two or three lines per rhytymic line, Callahan's somber voice strains the near-blueprint explanation of the "chinese screen" and the bedroom the couple shared. Callahan's regret over past mistakes felt (though not actually mistakes) rings true to anyone being wronged:

Now this has been
Going on every night
Since that week i left town
It really makes me think
I shoulda stuck around


Callahan's codependent, pathetic protaginist knows his girl has checked out, both emotionally and physically, and remains. It's a tragic story told only via a few repeated strummed guitar lines and Callahan's melodramatic baritone.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Veckatimest


Band: Grizzly Bear
Album: Veckatimest
Best song: "Two Weeks" is a delight and "Fine For Now" is amazing.
Worst song: "Hold Still" isn't great.

In describing St. Vincent to a friend recently, I mentioned that Annie Clark used to work with Sufjan Stevens on some of his records. Similarly, in old conversations with my late best friend, he used to complain about the irony-laden theatrics of Stevens' records.

People don't love Stevens' work for understandable reasons. I've mentioned in this and other spaces about my hatred for things that sound like showtunes. Stevens treads a very difficult line,

But, this isn't about Stevens. It's about Grizzly Bear, indie rock "it" band of the past few years (well, no, that's probably Animal Collective). The Brooklyn band has been near the top of every critic's list since the band's 2004 debut, Horn of Plenty. Lo-fi and pretty, Ed Droste made the record, essentially, in his bedroom alone. Droste has since filled out the band.

Grizzly Bear, in a lot of ways, is a post-Sufjan band. Veckatimest, named after an island in Massachusetts, is theatric and far-reaching. The record is ambitious, though not annoying so. The string arrangements are stellar and the keyboard combinatons make for something that sounds -- and I mean this in the best possible way -- a low-key great Elton John record, only with vocals that sound like a normal human's.

The jazz opening of "Southern Point" opens the album with the genre hopping evident of the band. "Ready, Able" moves from the soft pleasantries of Droste's vocals to a swelling guitar piece to a lilting harpsichord bit (I think it's a harpsichord. "About Face" has a Nick Drake-esque vocal. The harmonies "While You Wait for the Others" are rivaled only by those on the rollicking single "Two Weeks." "I Live With You" is low-key until the band explodes undeer a guitar/drum countdown-esque brush, with the song eventually using song-effect-sounding vntage keyboards to accent the cacophony at the end of the record. "Cheerleader" is an easy slink and features the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, drawing one of the albums more sonically evocative tracks.

But, the band's easy relationship-based songwriting holds the record together. Relying on easy phrasing and repetition, the band's lyrics are emotional and delivered with an emotional ferocity lost in similarly lambasted "boring" music. On "Fine For Now," for example, Droste's "There was time, it took time" chorus lines ring true while "Two Weeks" has the less self-confident chorus:

Would you always
Maybe sometimes
Make it easy
Take your time


It's the stage of breakup we've all felt. It's the desperation, the lyric bargains for just a bit of understanding. It's the notion that the one person is simply trying and trying to be something untenable, the perfect boy/girlfriend for the other person. S/he is doing the best s/he can, but it's not enough and it's too hard. But, indeed, cutting it off would be devastating. Time is needed for the Sisyphian task of becoming a better mate.

Maybe I'm reading too much into that lyric. It's the best song on a great album. Evocative, upbeat an pretty, "Two Weeks" is the highlight of Veckatimest.

Creepy video:

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rabbit Fur Coat


Band: Jenny Lewis
Album: Rabbitt Fur Coat
Best song: "You Are What You Love" is great. "The Big Guns" is awesome.
Worst song: "Happy" is pretty mediocre.

The fourth record reviewed on this little site was that of Jenny Lewis' band Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous. Jenny Lewis' voice, though not really rangy, is a lovely instrument.

Lewis' first solo record -- though, technically, it is Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins -- is just that: a non-too-rangey exploration of a lovely instrument. Lewis prefers a soft, indie country genre that doesn't branch out and doesn't actually exist much. Supposedly, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst asked Lewis to record the album for his label, Team Love, and Lewis agreed, putting out what she's called a "soul record."

I don't know. The album's a little soft for that genre and the strings/guitar combination file the album distinctly in the country drawer.

"Born Secular" ends with typical Lewis repetition and theatrics, but sounds more like a Loretta Lynne record than anything else. "It Wasn't Me" is a soft, (electric) guitar-and-voice lament. The quick chords and easy picking -- layered over one another -- of "The Big Guns" are among Lewis' higlights, all before the song's drums kick in. HEr cover of the Traveling Wilburys "Handle with Care" (assisted, vocally, by M. Ward, Oberst and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard) is nice, as well.

Lewis' lyrical ability is showed in the album more than any Rilo Kiley record. "Rabbit Fur Coat" is a sad tale of class envy, with the titular overcoat as a symbol of lost hope. "Rise Up With Fists" tells a more anti-authoritarian lament, as Lewis takes down preachers, business heads and community leaders in an almost Puritan fashion.

Of course, Lewis' lack of religiosity is a major theme of the record. "Born Secular" has Lewish saying that God goes "where he wants" and that he is "not in me." "The Charging Sky" takes down the idea of a merciful God ("Still they're dying on the dark continent/It's been happening long enough to mention it") and the institutions of church ("And it blinds you into fear and consuming and fight"), even asking "What if God's not there?" And, of course, "The Big Guns" has one of my favorite opening verses ever in a song:

Well you praise him
Then you thank him
Til you reach the by-and-by
And I've won hundreds at the track
But I'm not betting on the afterlife


I love this. For someone claiming to make a "soul" record, Lewis flys in the face of one of the key themes of the genres she claims and is playing (soul and country).

---

The album's best song, though, is a love song. Like Rilo Kiley's "Portions For Foxes," "You Are What You Love" is a long song gone awry. Lewis sings of being "a coward who paints a bullshit canvas" and wants not to be "a symbol or a monument, your rite of passage to fufillment." Beginning the song with the falsely confident proclamation "This is no great illusion, when I'm with you I'm looking for a ghost," Lewis puts her commonly screwed up love in full view.

And, again, like "Portions For Foxes," the chorus takes a portion of the previous and adds to it. In the final chorus -- indeed, final lyric -- of "You Are What You Love," Lewis calls back to the initial lines, rhyming the common chorus lines "You are what you love, not what loves you back" with the magic reference, singing:

And I'm in love with illusions
So saw me in half
I'm in love with tricks
So pull another rabbit out of your hat


Lewis' voice is bathed in a simple stutter drumbeat, backing vocals by the Watson Twins, a gorgeous harp, a moving bass line and some easy guitar. It's a crafted song, with Lewis' instrument rising above the rest.

---

I would be remiss in mentioning Jenny Lewis without mentioning her personal style and looks. She was, after all, a child actress and is, not unlike Neko Case, something of an indie rock sex symbol. Quoting myself:

Case is a certain type of indie rock persona, the "hot chick with a kickass voice." I'd suggest she's like Feist or Joanna Newsom in that case, but I find neither of those two artists to be particularly attractive.


Jenny Lewis is that, only actually good-looking. She's a lovely girl, though absolutely not my type. She's small and lithe, with shockingly red hair in a little-girl-meets-hipster style. It's moreso her personal style -- including that hairstyle -- that confounds me.

One minute, she dresses like a normal -- albeit hipstery -- young woman (personal favorite here). But, most of the time dresses like someone in a bad , or at some weird rodeo thing . Some of her weirder outfits are shown here.

She's a lovely woman, but, man, does she dress oddly.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Since


Band: Richard Buckner
Album: Since
Best song: "Ariel Ramirez" is brilliant. "Jewelbomb" is awesome, "Believer" is a classic. The whole record is great.
Worst song: No, it's all good.


For the life of me, I do not understand why Richard Buckner isn't the world's biggest alt-country artist. While Ryan Adams cashes huge checks and is the subject of a thousand teenage crushes, Buckner still plays half sold-out shows to weary truckers, granola eaters and NPR listeners.

Indeed, Buckner's finest moments on wax are far more sincere, tender and evocative than the average folk/country/indie record. While Adams looks to be young, American and handsome, Buckner looks like he could be your deadbeat cousin. The one who smokes too much weed, but holds down a job hanging drywall or installing

I guess Adams is a bad analogue, as his preening and lucky timing ("New York, New York" was a single released in the fall of 2001) have made him a just-under-the-radar household name. Moreover, his sunny optimism (in a genre not usually marked by such feeling) permeates his songs.

Richard Buckner, on the other hand, writes about his divorce.

---

Buckner's first records were decidedly folky affairs. Bloomed's best single -- the tender and passionate "The Worst Way" -- is simply Buckner, his guitar and his tears. His two subsequent records play similarly; Buckner sounds like a wounded bird, relaying his sorrow across his records.

Since is a more amped up affair. "Believer" is a rocker, driven by a strong electric guitar riff. "Jewelbomb" is a love letter infused with easy sarcasm. "The Ocean Cliff's Clearing" is wonderfully arrange. Though without drums, the song's layered guitars and piano emphasis show a more mature songwriter.

Buckner's stripped-down sound remains, on much of the record. "Ariel Ramirez," "Raze" and "Slept" all feature Buckner and his guitar. And nothing else. Each contains a guitar line that echoes Buckner's melody.

The album is decidedly confessional and decidedly intimate. Buckner laments his loneliness in "10-Day Room," serenades on "Jewelbomb" and warns on "Boys, The Night Will Bury You." "Goner w/Souvenir" tells the story of a mental and physical long distance relationship. "Ariel Ramirez" -- used in a Subaru ad, for some reason -- has as much energy in its long pauses as it does in Buckner's slowly picking guitar lines. "Coursed" speaks of a woman in an untenable situation as Buckner intones that she "stood on back with a heart attack and took the smoke out for a ride."

Since's sincerity is what drives the record. When Buckner warns "before I'm inside, you'd better know," he means it, only to follow "let's make our own/wake up in some wild, familiar time." He sounds broken singing "I kept your poem here/with all my other gear." "Took a turn and a scattered look" paints his picture of a woman in "Lucky Buzz" with the level of sincerity Adams reserves for his smirking irony, only for Buckner to sarcastically mention "we're the lucky ones."

---

I've left the self-indulgent bit to the end, because no one really cares how I got into certain records. In this case, my junior year of high school, I was the music director of WNTH Radio, New Trier's radio station located on the fifth floor of our school (I used to pee off the roof sometimes on night shifts).

Anyway, when I became music director, I would listen to anything that came from certain labels or had associations with certain musicians (aka Thrill Jockey, Touch & Go, Merge and the like).

One of the names adorning the cover of Since is John McEntire's. McEntire is the drummer and producer in one of my favorite bands, Tortoise. I knew absolutely nothing about Since and fell in love with an album I otherwise wouldn't have seen.

Indeed, this randomness is something I miss about music exploration. In the name of efficiency (mainlining music I'd probably enjoy thanks to my tastes), sites like Pandora and Last.fm have careful algorithms to make it such that the new music is similar to the music I already enjoy.

But, like the streamlined and niche news I enjoy, I've not branched out into new music solely because someone played on it or I liked the album cover. This is the end of radio, of course, and the end of the record store. So it goes, I guess.

But, I'll never forget the feeling of listening to "Believer," Since's opening track, for the first time. It was new, it was interesting. It was something.